Bach Sonatas and Partitas Fischer Pentatone PTC 5186072 SACD

Déjà Review: this review was first published in June 2005 and the recording is still available.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006 (1720)
Julia Fischer (violin, 1750 Guadagnini)
rec. 2004, Polyhymnia, Doopsgezinde Singelkerk, Amsterdam, Netherlands. DSD
Pentatone PTC 5186072 SACD [2 discs: 150]

Having been a fan of Julia Fischer from my first encounter with her, I leapt on this disk with the highest expectations. I was not disappointed. Julia Fischer is no longer a talented child; she is a highly skilled young woman of 21 who, as preparation for these recordings, played on the piano the Busoni transcription of the ciaccona (!) then began to expand her own violin performance in light of what Busoni had shown was possible. In the interview with Harriet Smith, Fischer tells us in her delightful manner and fluent English how she grew up in a musical household, how it was only an accident that she became a violinist instead of a pianist and that she feels at home on both instruments.

The argument that a 21-year-old can’t play profound music because she hasn’t suffered enough is belied by the fact that we do most of our suffering during adolescence; note the high suicide rate for teenagers. If we are lucky, as we age we gain compassion, insight, toleration, and we become weaker in the face of what sufferings remain. Hopefully, experience should teach us that other people have good ideas, too, and we become less assertive of our originality. But, most important, we lose finger co-ordination, so however Julia Fischer plays these works when she is sixty, she won’t play them with as much confidence or agility or purity as she plays them right now. You may want to buy this disk now for comparison later, as there is no doubt we will be hearing a great deal from Julia Fischer in the years to come.

This is awkward music to play, the more difficult pieces all but impossible to play with perfect grace, at least with a modern straight high-tension bow. Ralph Schroeder recorded them on CBS LP with a low tension arced bow which made arpeggiating the chords unnecessary; all the notes of the chords could be played simultaneously. It made for an odd but relaxed sound and perhaps impaired his agility in faster passages. No modern violinist has adopted the arced bow, and the efforts of recent performers to achieve smooth as well as agile performances have been remarkable. There is a danger here in that playing the works so they sound easy will make them sound superficial, whereas in earlier recordings the performer’s struggle may have inappropriately contributed to the drama. We need to remember that however he himself played them, Bach never struggled, and probably dashed the works off at break-neck speed.

The Martzy recording is the finest previous violin recording by a woman and in many ways the finest recording of these works ever done. Fischer’s performance is higher energy, more graceful, less mystical, but no less precise and assured, and possibly even more secure in pitch. Compared with anyone, Fischer’s ciaccona is a magnificent achievement, one of the very best, as are her fugas in g and C, and her preludio in E. Am I ready to transfer my allegiance from Martzy to Fischer? I’m thinking about it. Paul Galbraith’s guitar transcription is amazingly successful, particularly in the fugues and shorter pieces. That said, his proposal that Bach considered the ciaconna to represent the progress of Jesus’ steps towards Calvary results in a morbid but not notably insightful performance of that piece, rather lacking in drama and variety of tone.

Why do we need SACD for violin recording? I remember when stereo LPs cost a dollar more than monophonic, we would debate with ourselves whether stereo was worth a dollar or not. But violin sound is one of the most difficult sounds there is to record, and it uses every bit of the full range of the SACD if realism is to be attained. I came to listen to these recordings direct from a live solo violin concert and at once appreciated what had been accomplished here, evident even on the CD tracks on this hybrid disk. Listen to the CD tracks and be impressed; then listen to the SACD tracks and be bowled over.

Paul Shoemaker

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