Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

J. S. Bach

Arthur Grumiaux

album cover

Solo Masterworks for an Unlikely Instrument

The violin is an unlikely candidate for unaccompanied solo works. It's a linear instrument, geared toward melody and designed to glide atop harmony outlined by others. This didn't stop Bach from writing a daunting series of pieces for it. In these lively caprices, the baroque composer—who was, according to some biographers, a decent violinist himself—sets up elaborate schemes that utilize the violin's full range of sounds.

On some passages in the Sonatas and less-formal Partitas, Bach expects the violinist to play chords by voicing two or three strings (the so-called double stop or triple stop). He uses those fleeting chords to anchor extended forays through intricate sequences that sometimes wander a while before arriving at a calming resolution. Along the way, Bach sets all sorts of traps—in Partita No. 2 in D Minor, he uses extended arpeggios to define each new tonality, and ornate curlicues to embellish them. The Partitas have a loose, suitelike structure, with no set number of movements. They're often derived from dances: The triple-meter Giga section of Partita No. 2 zooms along, lively and fearless. That piece's final Chaconne movement, the longest single section in the set, is similarly animated, spiraling through a series of themes and astoundingly smart inventions. Its abundant melodic riches make the Chaconne one of Bach's towering achievements.

As he wanders through Bach's towering structures, French violinist Arthur Grumiaux focuses on graceful details, like an enthusiastic guide conducting an architectural tour. He has the technical command to dispatch Bach's hairpin turns, but doesn't use it in a showy way—he drills down to the center of the music, finding the compositional logic at every step. This, coupled with Grumiaux's delicate yet firm tone, makes his reading of the Partitas and Sonatas less about athleticism and more about pure music. Throughout, you sense that he could skate through the piece, playing up the surface flash, but chooses not to. He'd rather illuminate Bach's fantastical inner workings instead.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1961, Philips (Reissued 2007)
Key Tracks: Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Sonata No. 3 in C.
Another Interpretation: Julia Fischer
Catalog Choice: Inventions and Sinfonias, Glenn Gould.
Next Stop: W. A. Mozart: Violin Sonatas, Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim
After That: W. A. Mozart: Piano Sonatas, Christoph Eschenbach.
Book Page: 34

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Comments:

#1 from Paul Jackson, Bellevue, WA, USA - 01/19/2010 2:35

I also really like the version by Gidon Kremer recorded in 2002 and available on ECM records (ECM New Series 1926)

He also recorded the works in 1980 for Philips.

#2 from tom moon - 01/22/2010 7:34

Paul…

Thanks for that suggestion! Having just heard Kremer doing Piazzolla and assorted contemporary things, I’m curious to hear him do Bach.

tm

#3 from Stephen Lamade, East Northport, NY 17731 - 02/13/2010 4:24

Tom,

I have Christian Tetzlaff’s recent (2007) CD of Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas.  I’m a neophyte when it comes to music - but I have to say that I like this recording a lot.

Best,

Steve

#4 from Marc - 04/29/2010 1:20

Sorry guys but the reference for this particular body of work is without a doubt Henryk Szeryng’s 1967 recording.

If you want to listen to Bach’s sonatas and partitas, which have been played and played again and again by everyone from students to Heifitz, start with Szeryng.

#5 from Torrent SE - 06/18/2010 5:05

I’d love to have this recording. I like Bach very much. His music is very very grandiose. To tell the truth it is very difficult to imagine his music performed only with violin. i like violin a lot. I’m sure it must be something tremendous.

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