JS Bach Echo of Bach Solo Musica

Echo of Bach 
Agata-Maria Raatz (violin, voice)
rec. 2021, Blumenstein Church, Switzerland
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview 
Solo Musica SM439 [64]

The Chaconne form, a series of variations over a constant unchanging bass line, has always attracted obsessives and few come more obsessive than Johann Sebastian Bach and nothing reflects this aspect of his character better than the towering Chaconne which ends his D minor partita for solo violin. I rather suspect violinist Agata-Maria Raatz is a kindred spirit in this regard. The Chaconne form is a kind of haunting or even possession that can’t be let go. This intriguing debut album by Raatz seems to be the fruit of such a musical possession by Bach’s most famous and extensive feat of obsessional creativity. 

Raatz terms that influence as an echo but I found myself thinking about the possibly apocryphal notion that Bach’s Chaconne is an act of mourning for his first wife whose name may be encoded numerically in the notes of the partita. Haunting suggests being gripped by something outside oneself such as the memory of a loved one whereas in most cases it is an obsession which takes the form of an inability to let go. Paralleling Bach’s grief stricken fixation, Raatz explores the way his music grips both performer and listener in ways that neither can let go. One of the extraordinary compositions by Raatz herself included in this strange, elliptical collection has the suggestive title of Vergissmeinnicht (Forget me not) as if such obsessions were simple matters of remembering and forgetting. 

Remembering plays its part not just in terms of Bach recalling his dead wife or later composers such as Raatz or Ysaye summoning up Bach’s musical spirit – the Ysaye Sonata included starts with a direct quotation from the Bach E major partita for solo violin and ends by invoking the Furies, those Greek ladies who simply couldn’t let anything be forgotten – it also features Bach potentially recalling the influence of Johann von Westhoff, a pioneer of writing for solo violin, and whose six suites, Raatz speculates, had a direct influence on Bach’s compositions. The influence is readily audible in Raatz’ performance of the fifth of those suites. 

But this is not the kind of album that is interested in the past in any academic or even strict sense. Inspired by the improvisatory tradition of violin playing to which von Westhoff belongs she embellishes his score with pre-echoes of the Bach D minor partita which forms the core of the disc. For reasons unexplored in Raatz’ own extensive notes (somewhat shakily translated from the original German) these additions are mostly reserved for the opening Allegro movement though there is an epilogue appropriately entitled Echo which recalls the start of that first movement in rather spectral form. Not one for the purist but musically satisfying and stimulating. 

I was less convinced by the singing of Raatz’ jazz alter ego, Clara Jaz. Vocally these mercifully scant additions seem stranded somewhere between a fairly inappropriate jazz singing style and straight classical. I say inappropriate because the opening track sees Raatz combining the theme of the Chaconne convincingly with the Lutheran chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden, another type of supremely Bachian haunting that he never grew out of. A great idea a little lost in the execution.

Raatz makes the unarguable point that the Chaconne (and by extension all of the solo violin works) forms a conspectus of advanced violin playing in Bach’s day. Updating this was one of the objectives of Ysaye’s series of sonatas. Possibly because of lockdown conditions throwing violinists back to solo music, these sonatas are enjoying quite a vogue at the moment. I confess that the reasons for their popularity rather elude me since I find them rather empty exercises in technical know how that leave me disengaged. As here I can admire the skill of the performer but little else. Unfortunately for me at least this means that an otherwise engaging programme ends on a bit of flat note. In contrast Raatz’ own work Vergissmeinnicht, mentioned previously, contains bags of violinistic fireworks but grabs hold of the emotions too. It is splendid composition delivered with ferocious brilliance. 

I came to Raatz’s version of the Bach D minor partita fresh from reviewing Bojan Čičić’s heartwarming historically informed recording and the effect of full fat modern violin playing was a bit of a shock to the system. Allied to this Raatz’ approach pulls no punches. Her version of Chaconne is every inch the tour de force of obsession where Čičić allowed in more light and shade. Both fit beautifully within their performers’ respective conceptions of the music. 

Separating the Bach from the Ysaye we get a new composition by Swiss composer, Xavier Dayer, written especially for Raatz. It allegedly tells the story of the 13th century French mystic Marguerite Porete who was burnt at the stake for her beliefs but I’m not sure I can hear much of that in the music. Indeed, I found the work a bit of a non event after Raatz’s own pieces. Next time, Agata-Maria more of your own music please! 

This is a strange, uneven, provocative but ultimately very enjoyable album. Raatz is a real violin talent but I found that it was eclipsed by her talent as a composer. I hope ultimately to get a chance to hear an entire disc of her own work but in the meantime this will more than suffice. 

David McDade 

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Agata-Maria Raatz (b.1985)
Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705)
Suite No.5 in D minor for solo violin
Agata-Maria Raatz 
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin BWV1004
Xavier Dayer (b.1972)
Cette âme a six aîles tout comme les Séraphins
Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931)
Sonata No.2 for solo violin Op27