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Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin occupy, technically and expressively the highest position on the Parnassian slopes. They were not without precedent. Biber, Walther, von Westhoff whom Bach must have encountered at Weimar, and one or two others having written pieces for unaccompanied violin in the latter half of the previous century. Bach though, pushed the boundaries to their limits with intimidating technical requirements, contrapuntal exuberance, poetic expression and almost unfathomable subtlety. Why, or for whom, Bach wrote his unaccompanied violin music is not entirely clear but it is at least possible that he simply wished to explore and document as many different aspects of musical form as possible.

Communicative, often poetic performances are provided by the American violinist Rachel Barton Pine. The playing comes across as being carefully considered and Bach’s music comfortably ‘lived in’. Barton Pine’s technique is assured and her intonation well-nigh impeccable. Tempos are brisk and her masterly handling of the Fuga of the C major Sonata little short of breath-taking. This immense, multi- layered movement derives its subject from the Pentecostal antiphon ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’. 354 bars in length, its scale, its contrapuntal density and its intimidating technical demands make it a daunting challenge to the performer. Whether or not everything here is going to please all listeners is of course a matter of conjecture, but Pine’s responses to Bach, sometimes exuberant, sometimes gently poetic and always thoughtful are rewarding. Yes, this is Bach playing which I shall be enjoying many times over.

Like Pine, the American violinist Mark Kaplan plays an instrument, historical in itself – it dates from 1685, the year of Bach’s birth – but modified to accommodate the requirements of today’s concert pitch and large concert hall demands. In an interesting accompanying essay Kaplan acknowledges his debt to recent scholarship and the growth of historically informed performance. This debt is manifestly evident in his phrasing and articulation which serve Bach’s music eloquently and unhurriedly. The thoughtful shaping of the Allemande of the D minor Partita is an instance of what I mean. Kaplan’s tempos are more leisurely than those of Pine and his playing of the great Ciaccona of the Second Partita is a full five minutes longer than hers. This mighty ‘morceau célèbre’, a Goliath of the violin repertory, is built on a syncopated theme upon which Bach develops 64 continuous variations in the course of which he explores a wide and intricate range of harmonic possibilities. Kaplan brings out the expressive beauty of the piece while at the same time drawing our attention to its architectural splendour. There is an appealing sensibility about Kaplan’s performance and his expressive delicacy is complemented by a notably warm tone, an intuitive feeling for dance measures and an appositely discreet use of ornament.

A single disc containing the three Sonatas, BWV 1001, 1003 and 1005 comes from Japanese-German violinist Midori Seiler. Her playing strikes my ears less favourably than either Barton Pine or Kaplan. Her intonation is less secure and she does not always seem fluently conversant with the stylistic criteria of Bach’s time. There are, however passages where it is evident that she has thought carefully about the music though sadly, for me at least, she seldom ignites the fire or expresses the conviction demonstrated by the other two players. The Fuga of the C major Sonata is taken so slowly, in fact, that it almost loses any sense of direction.

The remaining two recordings are in their different ways oddities. Finnish cellist Markku Luolajan-Mikkola plays all six works on a Baroque cello necessitating key transposition in each instance. Luolajan-Mikkola has made his own transcriptions while avoiding, as far as possible, changes to the original text. The experiment is an interesting one even if in the end we may find ourselves less than satisfied with the result. Some movements come across with more conviction than others but the aural adjustment required throughout was a constant struggle. Cellists especially will encounter much to intrigue them and will find of interest Luolajan-Mikkola’s accompanying essay dealing with tuning issues and other important matters for the would-be transcriber.

Also from Finland comes a disc featuring the D minor Partita but without the celebrated Chaconne, and the E major Partita. Seamlessly interspersed with Bach’s music are assorted folk-derived pieces, most of them traditional but a handful by Finnish composers from Kreeta-Maria Kentala’s home town of Kaustinen. Kentala is a Baroque violinist whose lively responses to Bach’s dance-based movements are infectious. Hers is a very personal approach which may not appeal to all sensibilities. While I found her idiosyncratic juxtapositions fascinating – the traditional ‘Polska’ which follows the Preludio of the E major Partita is uncannily apposite – I would not want to hear these excursions from Bach’s solo violin pieces too often. Kentala, though, plays with affection and technical accomplishment and I found myself drawn effortlessly to the folk music of her home town. A delightful programme.

Nicholas Anderson Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing