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A somewhat clinical, "perfect" Bach
on May 16, 2005
These sonatas and partitas are among my favorite Bach works, alongside the Goldberg Variations. I've heard most of the great recordings of these suites by the great violinists, including this version by Grumiaux. My favorite rendition remains the 50s EMI survey by Nathan Milstein (not the DG version from the 1970s).
Now, Grumiaux stands tallest with me for his recordings of the Bach violin concertos and the famous double violin concerto, as well as his sublime version of the six violin/harpsichord sonatas (this is my favorite Grumiaux recording, and a "desert island recording" for me...an absolute must-have for anyone). For those, Grumiaux is unmatched in my opinion. But, in those cases, he has accompaniment that he must interact with. In these unaccompanied violin works, he has a subtle detachment. For an example, listen to the opening Grave movement from Sonata 2, and especially the Andante (movement 3) of Sonata 2. Grumiaux's technique is flawless, and he is almost at that magic threshold. Then, listen to Milstein play that Andante from the EMI 50s recording. You will hear exactly what I am talking about, something a bit too ineffable to put into words, but something you can hear. Given the fact that Grumiaux has recorded my favorite versions of Bach's other violin works, as I've mentioned above, this criticism was difficult for me to make.
I'm not suggesting a bombastic, romanticized account of these suites. Milstein finds the perfect balance (in his 50s version) between reverence of Bach and technical mastery. You feel every note of the music as it comes from Bach, and the depth of insight is extraordinary. Grumiaux captured that with his other recordings that I've mentioned above, but in these solo suites, there is a depth of feeling that is lacking. He's obviously more concerned with perfect form and cleanliness of line than he is with probing the music for its innermost secrets. Milstein achieves this, but on the EMI set from the 1950s, not the DG set from the 70s, where I think that Milstein also fell short.
It IS possible to have perfect form and cleanliness of line without sacrificing feeling. Milstein found that magic compromise in the 1950s on EMI. The words I always use after hearing the 50s Milstein are "intimacy" and "insight." His insights are so profound. Grumiaux's survey has impeccable sound quality, played on a gorgeous instrument, with flawless technique in the elegant style. Still, it doesn't get to the heart of this music. It's "perfect," but it doesn't speak to me.