Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (three of each) are one of the true monuments in the classical repertoire. Part exercise, part exploration, they were started in 1703, completed in 1720, but not published until 1802. Even then, they were largely ignored until they were taken up and championed by Joseph Joachim in the latter part of that century. Yet, despite this slow start, they have come to be recognized as one of the prototypical stages in classical development, a key test of any violinist’s technique. It’s a status that means we’re not exactly short of recordings, with most of the great violinists having a stab. You can take your pick from Perlman, Podger, Grumiaux, Szeryng, Milstein and any number of PYT wannabes. In the used-record bins, you could look out for Shumsky, while Testament offered the full set on three LPs from Ida Haendel -- although this is sadly now only available on CD.

With so many options out there, you might well wonder why we need another -- especially one that dates from 23 years ago. The answer lies in the approach taken to the recording, the justification in the nature of the recorded work. Tacet produce their recordings, even today, from an all-tube recording chain, from microphone through to analog tape recorder. This particular recording was made using a pair of vintage Neumann U47 mikes, capturing the virtuoso Florin Paul at the start of his distinguished career. Small-scale works lend themselves to such minimalist miking techniques and you don’t get much smaller in scale than a solo violin. But it is the combination of such a nimble musical voice with a composition of such resonance and massive emotional range that creates the enduring fascination in these pieces. The six works that constitute the whole encompass so much similarity yet differ so markedly that the scope for individual interpretation is almost unlimited. The beauty of Bach’s masterpiece lies in the solid structure, the security of a final destination, combined with the sheer flexibility that affords the individual traveler.

This disc contains just two of the partitas, Nos. 2 and 3, but you could argue that they’re the best of a stellar grouping. Florin Paul is captured in a church acoustic, playing an early Stradivarius with youthful gusto and musical abandon. Even by the standards of sonatas and partitas recordings, this is an intensely personal and individual reading. Add to that the immediacy and vibrancy of the recording, cut at an unusually high level, and you have a dramatic and vivid sonic presentation that places the instrument right in front of you, enclosed in its own acoustic. Shut your eyes and you are there.

So, no issues at all with the sonic performance. What about the artistic merits? For almost a decade, my go-to recordings of these works have been the Testament LPs [SBTLP 3090] and Julia Fischer on PentaTone SACD [5186 072]. Bizarrely, all three of these renditions need have no qualms about their audiophile credibility -- and all three deliver the sonic goods. But artistically speaking, they are worlds apart. Haendel was recorded at Abbey Road in 1995, well towards the end of her career. The perspective is slightly more distant, the instrument lacking the immediacy and power of the Tacet recording, but this is a mature performance that fully embraces the emotional power and range in the music. By the time the tapes rolled on this, Haendel had been playing at least part of these works for 60 years, and the depth of feeling and understanding makes that clear. What a contrast to the precocious talent of Julia Fischer, who made her PentaTone recording at the age of 21! As she wryly observes, there are those who would consider that presumptuous, but fear not. Fischer’s flawless technique and control carry the day, effortlessly unraveling the intricate musical puzzle and teasing out the flowing melodic lines that give the music its lasting appeal. PentaTone provide their usual clean, unfussy sound, and the church acoustic provides another parallel with the Tacet disc.

At 31, Florin Paul had a decade of performing experience over Fischer, yet hers is by far the more considered and controlled rendition. While part of that is surely down to temperament, it also reflects the two musicians’ instrument of choice. The Stradivarius is prized for the power of its voice, its ability to project, rather than the sheer beauty of its tone. Fischer’s Guadagnini dates from some 60 years later and has a far smoother, more delicate tonality, a quality she certainly makes the most of. Likewise, Paul’s dramatic, almost angular playing accentuates dynamic contrasts that are reinforced by the sheer energy coming off his instrument. Musically, at least for me, it’s a style that works better in the faster passages than the more measured ones, where the poise and control of Fischer wins out. But once the pace picks up there’s an infectious verve and excitement to Paul’s edge-of-the-seat performance.

No assessment of a sonatas and partitas recording can avoid the legendary Chaconne (Ciaconna) that closes the Second Partita. This 15+-minute exploration is the piece that you’ll hear most often as a standalone performance, a work that achieves almost shattering emotional intensity. Whilst neither Fischer nor Paul can match the performance of Haendel -- at least in emotional terms -- the breathtaking technical prowess of Fischer and the musical power and excitement generated by Paul render this an honorable draw.

Having listened to both partitas several times from all three players in the course of this review, I settled down for a direct comparison of that musical and emotional climax, listening to each reading in turn. And then I listened to them all again -- just for the pure pleasure of doing so. Which kind of tells you all you need to know. If you are buying just one recording, I’d go with the PentaTone, simply because it’s the best roadmap for the works. But once you’ve found your way around, I’d be putting both Haedel and Florin Paul on your list -- and if you want the music on LP, then it’s Paul that you’ll be listening to.

This might not seem like an obvious issue for an audiophile label, but the recording's purity of purpose and the commitment in the performance see it through. As Tacet note, they made the recording 23 years ago; if they made it today they’d doubtless do some things differently -- and Paul would certainly play the pieces differently. But then that’s the beauty of classical music: even the oldest works are living, breathing things that never stop evolving. Haendel, Fischer and now Paul -- what it is to be spoilt for choice

Roy Gregory

<< back