JWR Articles: CD - Bach Sonatas and Partitas BWV 1004-1006 (Featured artists: Cecylia Arzewski, Mark Kaplan, Nathan Milstein) - December 17, 2019
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Bach Sonatas and Partitas BWV 1004-1006

4.5 4.5
143 min.

A table approach to reviewing

CA = Cecylia Arzewski
MK = Mark Kaplan

Artist

Work/Movement

Positives

Not so much

CA

Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 (27’ 49”)

Allemanda

Crystal clear articulation;
Both repeats (but nothing added).

Lack of true triplet definition; lack of overall focus.

Too often the dotted rhythms felt more like triples than duples—where’s the balance?

Sarabanda

Very impassioned, feeling.

Breathe more;
What’s the hurry?

Giga

No technical worries.

Ignoring both repeats adds to the short-term drama, but does not really set a balanced stage for the mighty Ciaccona to follow.

Ciaccona

Epic journey of 257 bars of marvellous invention. Well voiced, strong statements, powerful finish. No worries with “arpeggio” and all of the stops.

Too much affectation in the opening 16ths and some of the passage work for my taste. Some of the three-note slurs morphed into unwanted triplets. A tad more breath (especially after octave/unison), would allow listeners to better digest the musical bounty.

MK

Partita No. 2 in D Minor. BWV 1004 (33’ 00”)

Allemanda

Very intimate, deeply personal approach; on both repeats an increase in the notion of never saying anything exactly the same way.

The initial “hesitato” seemed somewhat overdone for my taste.

Corrente

Consistently playful and at times coyly impish; a real sense of arrival on the high D in the second section.

Sarabanda

The structure was marvellously underscored and several points (notably the long G string) beautifully understated.

The super deliberate tempo would have been a marvel if just a metronome notch or 2 higher.

Giga

A buffet of textures, tones and styles; a feeling of “ready, set, go” with the 8th notes that lead off both parts; the overall feeling of meaningful lightheartedness ideally paves the way for the Ciaccona.

Ciaccona

Coming in nearly two minutes longer than AC, this rendition is a revelation in artistry and understanding. Attacca is most welcome. From 8ths that are definitely two voices, to the felt pain of minor ninths, through repeated notes with direction, there is much to admire. The breath after switching to D major is palpable ushering in a sequence that is nothing short of magical. The arpeggio, replete with dotted rhythms is another creative highlight alongside the upper pedal A.

MK

Sonata No. 3 in C Major. BWV 1005 (22’ 33”)

Adagio

A deliberately paced, brooding, at times melancholic reading, interspersed with wonderfully delicate phrasing.

Fuga

The highlights in this extended movement are most certainly the well-developed episodes including insistent D/G pedals.

The statements could be more straightforward in order to balance the developments.

Largo

Curiously tentative and lacking overall direction.

Allegro assai

Infused with energy to burn and impressive bow techniques. Completely agree with the decision to drop the second repeat.

CA

Sonata No. 3 in C Major. BWV 1005 (22’ 33”)

Adagio

Well-defined 16ths;

Overall, a convincingly aggressive approach

The duples not as even

Fuga

Well delineated lines and a good balance between legato/shorter strokes.

Delight in the A-flat major surprise; bold riverso at the start was most welcome.

Largo

Sequences had engaging ebb and flow.

Difficult to feel the initial pulse; more direction would aid the repeated notes.

Allegro assai

Moved steadily forward; well-rendered terraced dynamics.

No repeats.

CA

Partita No. 3 in E Major. BWV 1006 (19’ 25”)

Preludio

Confident, forward-looking approach; E pedal very strong; satisfactory dynamic contrast.

Just a bit frantic at times rather than secure.

Loure

Both repeats taken.

Never really felt comfortable in its rhythmic, pulsating skin.

Gavotte en Rondeaux

Principal subject too stilted and affected. No Invitation to the Dance here.

Menuet I

Menuet II

Menuet II, more palatable but likely to drive dancers and choreographers mad!

Menuet I - more of the same.

Bourrée

The best of the bunch: vibrant, energized and elegant.

Can’t ask for more!

Gigue

Why not just play as written and let Bach speak for himself?

MK

Partita No. 3 in E Major. BWV 1006 (19’ 25”)

Preludio

Masterful: scurrying lines full of drive and verve; effective contrasts; nary a dull second!

Loure

Beautifully understated; overall direction never in doubt; tasteful ornaments in the repeats the magical icing on this marvellous cake.

Gavotte en Rondeaux

Only three seconds different than Arzewski’s but worlds apart. Coy at first, then settling down, the retrospective last statement will linger in memory for a long time to come.

Menuet I

Menuet II

II – Features a much more natural thoughtful flow: switching up octave E and E seul to finish is a most welcome subtle addition.

I – Much too affected; lacks sense of purpose and direction.

Bourrée

A lively chase in and of itself. The unflappable violinist jumps all of Bach’s hurdles: all ends well.

Gigue

A deceivingly matter-of-fact artistry belies the incredible skills on offer, before a final, reluctant adieu whets the appetite for more.

As can be seen above, Kaplan has the edge in these monumental works, but both sets of CDs are well worth a listen.

Historical perspective

Sonatas and Partitas
Nathan Milstein
1975, Deutsche Grammphon

Recorded at the age of 71, Milstein demonstrates a magnificent understanding of the harmonic architecture that make these six works one of the wonders of our musical world. The few vagaries in pitch are more than compensated for by the phrasing, breaths and drive (overt as in Tempo di Borea, subtle as in Sonata No.2, Andante). Just a few portamenti work their way into the mix—happily as rare as hen’s teeth in the 21st century. None of the three artists are able to let the Courante’s Double, Presto (Partita 1), just speak for itself, yielding an unwanted array of triple and duple results which might well become a cohesive whole if the 16ths were rendered “as is”.

Both Fugas from Milstein on disc 1 are especially well-voiced and feature a variety of textures and tones that wonderfully reinforce the subject and the episodes. Another delight is the spritely approach and sense of fun lifting the Bourée into the realm of superb.

The second disc of this set is somewhat hit and miss. With an overabundance of push and pull, it’s hard to imagine anyone dancing to Partita 2’s opening Allemanda. That quibble is soon washed away by the compelling heroic declamations of the Sarabande followed up by a Giga that radiates happiness and joy, ideally setting the table of contrast for the final of the suite. The mighty Ciaccona is infused with powerfully stated lines, oozing conviction and drive, also studiously balanced by delicate answers to the subject’s question as the variations unfold. A few moments of impatience are apt indeed and paid off handsomely by Milstein’s inventiveness in realizing the arpeggio sections. After an impassioned finish, it is but to marvel at Bach’s creativity and this beloved violinist’s ability to read between the lines.

The first two movements of Sonata 3 (Adagio, Fuga) never truly get into their skin. It falls to the infectious Allegro to put the artistry back on track with incredibly nuanced terrace dynamics rather than the more common loud/soft delivery. Partita 3 is a true Invitation to the Dance filled with engaging energy (Preludio), most accurate rhythm (Loure), a zesty Gavotte and a pair of Minuets range from regal to wistful alongside introspective melodies and quiet accompaniments. Exuberant is the first word that comes to mind as the Bourée readily sparkles into life before the deftly crafted sequences from the closing Gigue brings the music to entirely satisfying final adieu. JWR

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