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on March 12, 2010
I have only been listening to nine different recordings of these works, so I am in fact a complete novice in the field (and no musicologist at all), all the same I will try to give short comments on these nine interpretations that just might help you to choose which set you want to buy.

My personal favourite is no doubt John Holloway's recording (on ECM). When I first heard it I had only been listening to Shlomo Mintz (on DG) and Hilary Hahn (on Sony), so I feared the great Ciaccona/Chaconne of BWV 1004, because both of those artists' interpretations of that movement sounded like musical warfare, full of shrieks and noises. But Hallelujah! Guess what happened? The movement made sense to me for the first time - in Holloway's hands it is actually music! And the rest of the set also sparkles in Holloway's recording. What is so special about Holloway's version is that it has an almost spiritual, metaphysical aspect to it that nobody else achieves. It is a recording full of sublime transcendental beauty. That aspect of course is emphasized by the wonderful church acoustics (another great Manfred Eicher production from ECM). The booklet contains a performer's note and a few facsimile pages of Bach's beautiful handwritten score. If you are looking for just one recording, you don't really have to read further - I recommend that you buy Holloway's set.

If you have not bought Holloway's set yet, I have to say a little more about Mintz and Hahn: The aggressive approach in Mintz' Ciaccona/Chaconne is more or less present throughout Mintz' recording and in my opinion his playing does not quite justify it - it is "agitated" without having a reason to be so. If you want the sort of expressive power which Mintz is trying to put into these works Nathan Milstein (on DG) is a better option (NB: There is an earlier recording from EMI which I am not reviewing here). The problem with Hahn is that you are more impressed than moved; she plays fast - some might even say that she is superficial and skates over the essentials. Hahn also has a tendency to romanticize in the slow movements. Besides it is not a complete recording, she only plays half the works (BWV 1004, 1005 and 1006). However, her version of BWV 1006 is probably my favourite because of its exquisite, exuberant brilliance that fits that partita well.

Sigiswald Kuijken (on DHM) is almost as good as Holloway and he almost reaches Holloway's metaphysical heights, but his Ciaccona/Chaconne is not entirely perfect, it sounds like separate movements put together rather than as a whole. The performance has rougher edges than Holloway's, which can be a good thing. (NB: I am reviewing the 2001 release from DHM not the earlier release on the same label.)

Viktoria Mullova (on Onyx) and Rachel Podger (on Channel) are more down to earth than Holloway, but they both play beautifully. Maybe Podger is a somewhat overrated performer of Bach's music for solo violin. Her recording has been praised by numerous critics and it is so beautiful that I would like to like it more, but isn't it just a little bit boring? I am listening to it right now and again I get this sort of feeling: "Yes, it is beautiful, but why am I listening to it?" That question answers itself when I listen to Holloway or Kuijken. With Kuijken and Holloway playing the music explains itself, it says: "I will just explain how this sounds." If you are looking for clarity and serenity choose Mullova. Make sure you buy the new Onyx set not the old Philips release!

If you want the slow movements played slow and the rest played beautifully by a young talented violinist Julia Fischer (on Pentatone) should be your choice.

Henryk Szeryng's first recording (on Sony) from 1955 is very serious and intense, a haunting (but also demanding) experience. Szeryng later made another recording for DG but I have not heard it (yet). Of course you should expect less than perfect sound on a recording that is more than fifty years old.

Mullova, Kuijken, Podger and Holloway play period instruments.

Szeryng, Mintz, Milstein, Hahn and Fischer play modern instruments.
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on April 21, 2009
Only a handful of "period" violinists have ventured to record the complete unaccompanied violin works of Bach, with mixed results; this version from John Holloway (playing on a Guarneri violin) is a resounding success. Holloway (born in 1948) is one of the finest baroque violinists alive. He produces a steady, austere tone of almost supernatural purity, letting every note ring out with a fruity resonance, and produces some of the most ear-ringingly precise Just intonation you will ever hear. Holloway lets the music unfold with dignity and quiet intensity, never stooping to mannerisms or exaggerated effects. This recording is the result of a lifetime's experience, not only with Bach's violin solos, but with baroque music in general. As he explains in his personable liner notes, Holloway views these works from the standpoint of their past (from the music Bach grew up with and was interested in) rather than their "future". Indeed, Holloway's experience with 17th-century music is evident in his Bach playing: it shows in the fast movements in continuous sixteenth notes, where he unfurls the figurations rather like the fantastic divisions in sonatas by Schmelzer and Biber; or in slurred ornamental figuration, which is tossed off into the air (exactly as it should be, pace Edith Eisler).

While I'm at it, a "review of the review" seems in order. First, Eisler is incorrect when she says that Holloway breaks all the chords upwards; in fact, he occasionally breaks them downwards (albeit in a convincing and tasteful way) where the moving voice is on the bottom. Second, far from being "excessively improvisatory", Holloway's preludes have an ornamental freedom inhering within the bounds of a steady pulse - essential for interpreting this type of movement. And is it possible that what Eisler hears as "jerky, uneven rhythms" and "long pauses in between phrases" is Holloway's tastefully applied rubato, aimed at bringing out the implied counterpoint in a single line of music? Finally, a word about the acoustic. As a customer has noted, it is reverberant, but this aids in projecting the polyphony of the pieces: certain notes hang in the air, to be answered by another voice chiming in below. Besides, it allows Holloway's tone to rise like incense to heaven.
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on May 5, 2012
The first thing that stands out about this recording of Bach's solo violin works is the sound - Holloway plays with a period violin in a big church acoustic, producing a very unique sound unlike any other recording I've heard. His tone is buttery smooth and very pleasing to the ear - something that is rather uncommon in these works.

Indeed, it took me some time to distinguish my feelings about John Holloway's artistry from those regarding the sound. In general Holloway employs a thoughtful, flexible approach to Bach and is not afraid to assertively phrase music that can otherwise sound like no more than a dry series of notes at times. In this way he reminds me somewhat of Nathan Milstein, though he doesn't squeeze as much drama from the music as the latter.

Holloway is strongest in the partitas, particularly the first and third. The Chaconne of the second begins in a very understated way but inevitably intensifies and finishes off the second partita nicely. My only real reservations are regarding the fugues of the sonatas, where Holloway's playing can sound gummed up at times. I'm not sure to what degree this is due to his slow tempos or his halting phrasing. To his credit he manages to avoid the all-too-common sword slashing sound in these obviously challenging movements, but some of the grandeur and drama of the fugues is lost along the way.

The only other period instrument recording I am familiar with is Viktoria Mullova's on Onyx, which is considerably more expensive. Also finely recorded (albeit in a more earthly acoustic), Mullova has superior technical command but perhaps takes fewer risks with regards to phrasing. Her playing is characterized by more subtlety than Holloway's. It is a close call, but I tend towards Mullova's sleek and effortless work. On modern instruments my favorites are Grumiaux and Tetzlaff, though there is undoubtedly something special about Milstein's EMI set as well.
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on October 18, 2007
I've just started listening to this CD set and love the playing so far but the recording suffers terribly from the decision of too much reverberation. I haven't read the liner notes but I'm really disappointed in this aspect of the recording. It is the result of an over-reverberant venue or digital addition but it has the effect of running the notes together. Way over the top for a solo instrument, and Bach particularly. This aspect of the recording process removes much of the angularity and power and makes the music sound sickly sweet. The other reviewers haven't minded this but I find it very annoying.

Brian Carr has just pointed out to me that this recording was made in a monastery. That explains the reverb - so at least it isn't artificial. Still - audition first. Thank you Brian
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on August 30, 2013
The concept behind this Bach release from noted violinist John Holloway and ECM is elegant:

Take the darker, deeper sound of the baroque violin

Holloway's contemplative interpretative style

And an outstanding ECM recording job done in a reverberant location

And combine. What you have is a truly beautiful result, one that sounds different from any other Bach solo violin recording I have heard. Bach's architectonic writing is paired with a strong atmosphere to enhance the music's already considerable sense of grandeur.

The use of the baroque violin is one of the factors in this recording's distinctive sound. A baroque violin is different from a modern violin in a number of ways: strings closer to parallel to the violin's body due to a flatter fingerboard and a shallower bass bar - which permits holding double and triple stops longer; gut strings - which lend the music a rawer and fuller sound - and a different bow . These design differences and Holloway's raw yet rich sound all add to the sensuality and richness of the CD.

I found Holloway's interpretation of the 1st and 2nd sonatas particularly effective. The first fugue in the 2nd sonata is wonderful. Holloway is able to extend the subordinate voices here for a more relaxed and graceful presentation than in many modern violin recordings. The sonata's opening grave is just so peaceful and serene. The only deficient performance here is of the cheery 3rd partita, tucked in last in the set, which Holloway hadn't learned as thoroughly as the other works here.

Compared to a traditional performance, such as Nathan Milstein's classic set from the 1970s, Holloway is more contemplative, generally slower. While that loses some of the energy Milstein brings, it also adds a mystical quality to the playing. Milstein's Bach is trebl-y, spirited; Holloway's is bass-y, often serene. Compared to a well-received historically-informed performance like Rachel Podger's, while Holloway can't play the polyphonic passages with Podger's astounding technique, his musicality and interpretive vision are on a wholly higher plane than her's.

A remarkable release.
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on October 3, 2014
I am a bit disappointed by this 2 CD set which has received some positive words. I was hoping for something to surpass Kuijken's masterly recording of these great solo works. That said, this is better than some I have listened to over the years. Some of my disappointments in this music include: Heifetz, Perlman, Grumiaux, and Fischer.

What is it that most disappoints here? Not sure,exactly, although I suspects it includes agogics or accents. Many of the movements are dance movements. I expect the music to dance, but really should I? Your take may differ.

I remember once reading that many objected to Bach's recorded music because it seemed like sewing machine music. The first musician to open my ears to this critique was Glenn Gould, although I admit he may have overdone it at times.

My recommendation in this music is Kuijken, then Milstein on EMI, and also prime Szegeti ( who didn't record all of them when he was in his prime).

Another criticism is that the 2 CD case was trashed in shipment. The discs, luckily were not scratched, but the case was damaged and I've had to put the discs into other cases in order keep them pristine. Was this the fault of the manufacturer or of Amazon which sent it out in a padded envelope? This is not that first time that I've received a cracked or damaged case from Amazon's inadequate packaging of CDs.
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on December 3, 2014
Extremely clean, but a little safe. Worth adding to the 20 recordings you already have.
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on February 18, 2007
This double CD of all the Bach sonatas and partitas for violin solo performed by John Holloway is excellent. He used a baroque violin so the recordings would sound like what Bach heard in his day. I really enjoy listening to these violin solos, especially the Chicone.
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