INKPOT#77 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: J.S.BACH Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin. Tenenbaum (Essay)

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin
BWV 1001-1006MELA TENANBAUM violin

ESS.A.Y Recordings CD1049/50/51
2 discs [135:05″] full-price

with bonus disc: “My Thoughts Aloud About Bach’s Solo Sonatas with Mela Tenenbaum” [48:49]

by Ng Yeuk Fan

J.S. Bach‘s solo violin Sonatas & Partitas are essential repertoire for any concert violinist. Not only do the famous and great play them in recital, individual movements are also often heard as encore pieces, especially the popular Prelude from the E major Sonata, a finger-twiddling presto that is equally a sight to watch.

Nonetheless, the crowning glory of this entire set of feverishly difficult set of solo violin works – arguably the most difficult original solo works ever written for the violin – must be the monumental Chaccone. Lasting between 14-19 minutes, depending on who’s playing, it is a set of variations on a theme during which almost every single technique of violin playing in a performer is put to test.

J.S. Bach That is not say that playing Bach (right) is devoid of emotional input, as certain players are wont to treat them as mere technical exercises. This brings me to this current recording offered by Mela Tenebaum. When one friend of mine – himself a manageably efficient violinist heard this disc – said :”playing Bach solo Sonatas & Partitas, you must have respect for [God]”, and in Ms. Tenenbaum’s recording, one can indeed hear plenty of humility and respect not just for the music, but perhaps a higher order as well.

[My first exposure to this set of works was through my MEP (Music Education Programme) friends back in Raffles Junior College. Though I was not part of the programme, I usually hung out with them during lunch to listen to the varied discussions on music and topics of life. Throughout those two years, life was as close to life in a conservatory as I will ever get – music practices and performances were the norm and it would be unusual if the pianos were not played by some student punching out some Beethoven Sonata or Chopin tude amongst the occasional string and wind players. I enjoyed my experiences there tremendously and made many lifelong friends; friends whose lives connected because of music. This unique experience was not to be repeated again until I met the folks at the Inkpot. Boy, is the feeling familiar!]

One of those friends I met at the MEP was practising the Chaconne. She taught me to play my first notes on the violin. Then it was no more turning back. I fell in love with the violin and its music and I have since steadily discovered more and more of the repertoire for this most remarkable of instruments. It is clear from the music that these works flowed from Bach through his great understanding of the violin. One is almost tricked by Bach into hearing a quartet of violins. The multitude of double and triple stops is phenonmenal. Semi-quaver passages marked “Allegro” and “Presto” can be found throughout the set amongst many other technical bravados that a non-violinist such as myself can recall no names for. This makes for a sizable nightmare for lesser violinists but to the listener listening to a competant violinist such as Tenenbaum – it is a formidable aural impression that humbles one at the experience.

Ms Tenebaum plays with great idiosyncracy (as exampled in the Sarabande & Tempo di Borea of the Partita in B minor, and elsewhere) but never breaches the line of reverential Bach. Right from the beginning in the G minor Sonata, one senses a very excellently played Adagio full of great finesse, of real tone superbly nuanced with musical ornaments Bach would be most agreeable to.

Mela Tenenbaum In fugal elements such as in the aforementioned G minor Sonata and parts of the Chaconne, Ms Tenebaum (left) sometimes struggles with the enormous technique required of her, and there tempi suffers, resulting in a loss of vitality. In other parts too, the tone suffers and becomes strained – sort of becoming strangulated and pushed out of the violin rather than drawn out, singing.

This is a common problem that some other lesser players have circumvented with mutiple takes and modern recording facilities, such as the aural honey version which Perlman recorded for EMI (CDS7 49483-2)- yes, the one that won a Penguin Guide rosette – which should be renamed “J.S. Bach’s Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas for Audio Engineer and Violinist”. But I digress.

I suspect little to none has been utilised here in Essay’s recording, so that we may hear Ms Tenebaum in a more ‘natural’ performance, complete with real flaws beside real achievements. In truth, I appreciate the meditative slower movements such as the Adagio in the A major Sonata and Loure in the E major Partita, each soused with intrinsic understanding of the music, paced according to soulful Bachian lines, complete with the insecurity and waverings in her tone. This might seem at first to be a flaw but indeed, it works to her advantage and makes for a more believable attempt, real and full of human empathy. This is the real challenge.

Many examples of great first-class playing are heard – a great part of the monumental Chaconne in the D minor Partita is good despite being slightly lacking in strength: the music speaks its own greatness, an example of Ms Tenenbaum’s good common sense. The presto in the G minor Sonata and the Allegro assai in the A major sonata is exciting beyond qualms. She displays fearless vigour with precision tolerance at break-neck speeds. Her Preludio of the E major Partita is reminiscent of Menuhin’s nobility, while the Allemande in the B minor Partita displays a use of vibrato that is exact and not excessive. This works greatly to her advantage and sounds very authentic and would be pleasing to period listeners.

All in all, the intonation is perfect 99% of the time and if assuming what I said about minimum tweaking in the studio holds, she is more exact than Heifetz. Last but not least, Ms Tenebaum is always stylish in her interpretation, listen to her Gigue in the E major Partita – it somehow connects with my senses immediately.

One other thing that perhaps Ms Tenenbaum can improve on is the colouring of the individual ‘voices’ represented by their different registers or in the individual strings. This is one of the most difficult things to achieve in contrapuntal music playing. As far as I am concerned, I have yet to hear a performance that achieves unparalleled success in all the desirable qualities required in playing Bach’s Six Solo Violin Sonatas & Partitas. What Ms Tenebaum achieves in this testament comes close to that ideal with a good measure and balance of successes in all the expected qualities. This, complete with a bonus explanatory disc featuring her good common sense side by side with her recorded examples, makes an offering that is certainly one of the best available today.

More solo violin stuff? Try
Ysaye’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin – Marinkovic (Collins) | Graffin (Hyperion)

Ng Yeuk Fan has been digging a trench for the past one year; dig, dig, dig. Only yesterday did he realise that there was no need for the trench because there was no war imminent。

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