Tuesday, October 13, 2015

800 Words: An Intermission for the Bach Chaconne (Updated) (Updated Again and Finalized)

In this moment when my mood has become so black, I've returned to the violin and to the best of all violin pieces. The Bach Chaconne is the one piece every violinist loves and fears like no other. It is the violin Masterpiece with a capital M. For all my ambivalence about lots by Bach, I'm not stupid enough for it to escape me that at his greatest, he is the very greatest of them (us?) all. I still hope one day to be able to play it, but I'm still far off. For the moment, I've been listening to it ad nauseum, dozens of performances.

Here are the good ones I could find from youtube, ranked in a kind of rough order:


Yehudi Menuhin at 40: As far as I'm concerned, this is single greatest recording of the single greatest violin work. Only a visionary musician - half gypsy of the Earth, half explorer of the cosmos, could ever play like this. Yehudi is fearless - more sensible violinists get slower as the music gets more difficult. Yehudi speeds up (!!!). At times, what we hear in this recording is the cosmos itself, in which Yehudi manages to lift off from ordinary human limitations of what can be done with either the violin or with music. It's possible that Menuhin, perhaps an even greater child prodigy than Jascha Heifetz, never really learned to play the instrument. He was a violinist of 'art', not 'craft,' and sometimes sounds like the world's greatest amateur fiddler. But there are some great musicians of the old school who seem to save themselves for the greatest moments. Their technique is indifferent until the moment they need it, at which point they give us the experience of a lifetime. As the music grows more transcendent, playing that a few minutes previously sounds they'd just gotten out of bed grows into a cosmic event. The more transcendent the music, the more transcendent they become. Furtwangler and Bernstein were like this, so were Schnabel and Edwin Fischer, and Cortot and Sviatoslav Richter, and Casals and the older Rostropovich, and Bronislaw Huberman and Yehudi Menuhin. We have too many professionals in the world of music today who impeccably play notes, but play little music. This is 15 of the greatest minutes of music ever captured by the microphone.


Isaac Stern - The other great Russian-Jewish violinist from San Francisco is the other greatest player of this work. Stern's stock has gone down in recent years with revelations that he was a jerk in his interpersonal relations who virtually blackballed every other promising American violin soloist of his generation. Nevertheless, Stern truly was an extraordinary player  He was not the visionary seer of long-range cosmic events that Menuhin was, but short of Menuhin's raga-like ability to grow something from the earth that rises to the stars, this is as good as it gets. This is the human Bach Chaconne, every phrase, every note, every shading, every accent, communicates something.

Bronislaw Huberman: The tragedy of it. Perhaps the greatest violinist of them all plays the greatest of all violin pieces, and the sound is nearly unlistenable. Listen through the dissonance and you hear the hand of a master who gets to places even Menuhin can't. Menuhin is so busy striving for the infinite that he doesn't relax. Huberman doesn't fall through fire and time the way Menuhin does, but he knows exactly how to suggest the infinite and still capture the humanity you get from Stern. This is the hand of perhaps THE master.

Kyung Wha Chung: To hear Kyung Wha Chung in her prime is to hear what was lacking in so many who came after her. A violinist of volcanic temperment, who also happened to be a beautiful woman. People condescended to her at the time as a woman from the Asian 'provinces' who got to where she was because of her beauty. I remember hearing her fifteen years ago at the National Symphony when her technique was in horrible shape, and thinking to myself 'what the hell was the fuss over?' But in her prime, she was nothing of the sort, and for the violinist she once was, she was, and will always be, one of the immortals. Even if the sound she drew from the violin was not a fraction so beautiful as it was, there was her google musical intelligence and the fearless emotional frankness she brought to her performances. No one except Huberman has ever made this piece work at so slow a basic tempo, and like both Huberman and Menuhin, she uses her slow tempo to speed up when the music grows in intensity, and to highlight the harmonic rhythm as none but Huberman and Szigeti do. This is, truly, one of the greatest, most moving performances of this work.

Leonid Kogan Kogan had a reputation for coldness that is completely belied by this performance, which is lovingly soft in places where every other violinist explodes. This is a performance unlike any other: painfully, soulfully introverted. Kogan can light fireworks with the greatest, and the softness makes his more explosive passages all the more stunning. What in Menuhin's hands is pure vitality and imagination, and in Stern's hands is fire and brimstone, becomes a elegy on life's sadness.

Adolf Busch: In his lifetime, there was no more lauded champion of Bach and you immediately hear why. This is not Bach as a dry exercise, this is Bach the living God. In Busch, we hear what it must have been like to hear the golden-toned, supremely gifted Joseph Joachim - whose violin was muse to Schumann, Brahms, Bruch and Dvorak. Even in the tubby 85-year-old sound, the beauty of Busch's tone is too great for words. There is a hint of German imperiousness, he did not give completely of himself after the manner of his colleagues to the east, and there is very little of passion's grime in his playing. In its place is a kind of divine play, as though he understood this music so completely that he could simply toss off a masterly performance the way Mozart did a masterly String Quintet.


Zino Francescatti
: The French don't fare particularly well in this most emotionally demanding of pieces. Christian Ferras's playing is perfection itself, it's also ice cold. Arthur Grumiaux is not far behind in the perfection department, but there's something about his playing that seems almost chipper and perky. And then there's Zino... who grabs this music by the scruff of the neck and never lets go. Actually, that's not quite true, because occasionally you wonder if he might run out of steam - as though the demands he places on himself might exhaust him. But that's because he's like a wild man for the rest, playing things so bizarrely fast, flexible, and roughly that it sounds like an avant-garde piece of the twentieth century.

Jean-Jacques Kantorow: I have never heard of Jean-Jacques Kantorow until now, but it will suffice to say I'm going to be looking out for many more performances of his. This performance is, seemingly like all the French in this piece (if you decide Zino's Italian...), a little too forthright and lucid. But from the moment he plays those arpeggios sul ponticello, you realize that this will be a performance utterly unlike any other. The sul ponticello moment is indicative of the whole thing: it's a wonderful touch, but a little too style-centric, as though the violinist is adapting a pose rather than truly living the music. But even if it's a pose, it's an extraordinarily effective pose. Kantorow, unlike Milstein or Szeryng or Rosand, is not simply content to let his unwillingness to be vulnerable make the music sound slightly bland. Who's to say that Bach would not have thrilled to such virtuoso championship of his music?

Dmitri Sitkovetsky (starts at 16:45): My god, what we lost when we lost his father, Julian Sitkovetsky, in his early 30's. Julian could have been the greatest violinist of the century, though his recording of the Chaconne was surprisingly diffident. But at least here is his son, very nearly as talented as his father - a true artist of jaw-dropping technique who clearly has something original to say. The son's interpretation is anything but diffident, and blows his father's out of the water. In anything, it's wayward - there are some interpretive decisions and rubati that work like magic like the way he holds out those 'A' harmonics in the D-major section, others don't quite make sense to my ears. But this is a real artist combing the work for meaning that no one else finds.

Oscar Shumsky: I met Oscar Shumsky when I was seven and my Bubbie took me into the Green Room of the Baltimore Symphony after he played the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I told him I played the piano and violin, and he grabbed me by the head, shook me, and said 'Stick with it kid!' Perhaps this colors my reaction to him, as does his career. Unlike Aaron Rosand and Ruggiero Ricci, I'm positive that Shumsky was in the same class as Stern and Menuhin. Perhaps he was compelled to forego a virtuoso career, but regardless, he was a great violinist and true musician. Perhaps all that prevents this recording from true excellence is that he clearly was a bit older (perhaps around the time I met him) when this live performance was recorded. Like with Zino, you can feel the energy drain towards the end, but my god, the infinity of colors and phrasings he gets here. Even if the execution is not quite 100% (though rather close even so), this is a master musician at work.

Janine Jansen: Thanks to the forces of the modern market, we unfortunately have a surfeit of attractive women in the violin world at the top of the concert circuit. Some of them are very good - I couldn't find Chaconne recordings on youtube from Baiba Skride or Leila Josefowicz, but I'd look forward to hearing them. But there are others who so seem to lack personality that I'm a bit mystified as to why they belong among the top flight of the world's violinists - Hilary Hahn of course, Julia Fischer, Ariella Steinbacher, Viktoria Mullova, Sarah Chang (make your own list), and James Ehnes from the male side. I don't begrudge them their technique, and I think it's wonderful that women are finally getting a shot as men's equals. But I wish these violinists had more worthwhile to say than they clearly do, and I wonder how much of it is truly a feminist triumph and not simply a triumph of aesthetics in marketing. When significantly less attractive performers like Dora Schwartzberg and Ida Haendel, greats of the previous generations, step on the stage, you know that they're there because of musical ability. Who knows how many deserving players are kept out because certain adequate but empty players (both female and male) look good on a CD jacket. But among the violin 'babes', Janine Jansen is easily the most gifted, and can hold her own with the greatest of any period at all. There is only a slight bit of Historically Informed about this, and if anything, this makes it feel as though she is the closest in conception to Bach's own. Everything is understated and pretty until she suddenly overwhelms you with both the technique of her playing and with Bach's compositional ingenuity. With age might come the wisdom to scrawl her natural explosion of talent all over this piece more than any other, but in the meantime, this is still a great performance.

Ivry Gitlis: He must be in his seventies here, and he's still going strong at 93. Ivry is my favorite violinist and the kind of violinist I'd have most liked to have been - not that I ever could come up to his ankles on my best or his worst day. Ivry's sound and style will ever be mistaken for anybody else because no violinist has ever had the confidence to be so consistently himself. Gitlis never had the Teutonophile Menuhin's relentless striving for metaphysical truth - he is a gypsy fiddler from beginning to end. He knows the work so well that he seems as though he's making it up as he goes along - constantly saying to himself 'how might it sound if I try this?...' In his playing, in the playing of almost all the old players, we hear a dirt and grime that you never get in the laquered playing of today's violinists who always leave something in reserve - even Heifetz and Milstein have that quality, but none more than Gitlis, whose playing always contains Huge accents unafraid to muss the sound of the instrument, vibrato, a huge sound that most teachers today would tell students comes from too much pressure on the bow.

Pekka Kuusisto: This is a performance that needs to be watched, not listened to - a performance so different from every other that it has to be experienced for the sheer novelty. I have never heard a performance of Bach's Chaconne that provokes laughter from the audience, and yet that's what happens here because Bach's unaccompanied Chaconne is accompanied by a juggler who interprets the Chaconne visually. I'm not going to judge the relative merits of pairing Bach with a juggling act, but I will say that an accompanying juggler is perfect for Kuusisto's high-wire playing style. I don't think there has ever been a modern violinist (and I'm pretty sure he was playing a violin) who can play the notes with Kuusisto's clarity, and I'm not even sure that Baroque Violinists like Kujken dispense of the score in the little time it takes Kuusisto. Far more than the original generation of Baroque Violinists, Kuusisto captures a Baroque spirit. There's nothing tragic about Kuusisto's approach, but as a piece of virtuosity, not even Heifetz and Milstein could ever touch this bravado.

Alina Ibragimova: What a talented player! Somehow she's managed to operate completely under my radar when she's clearly a star to a lot of people. This 30 year old Russian violinist is clearly influenced by period style, but not at all beholden to or inhibited by it. Her focus is single-mindedly on what's expressive, not what's correct. If anything, she combines the best of the lean sound of the new Baroque style with the charisma, rich tone, and beautifully human phrasing of the old school Eastern European players.

Joshua Bell: I'm ashamed of loving Joshua Bell's playing. There is nothing worse than finding out that a handsome musician who has an A-list career due to marketing is actually talented, but Joshua Bell is very much the real thing. I don't know if there's ever been a violinist who ever moved around and grimaced onstage as much as Bell, and yet in Bell's case, it's reflected in his playing, which is so free. He does not have quite the volcanic temperament of Stern or Gitlis, or the visionary probity of Menuhin and Huberman, he simply does not hold anything back from the resources he has. The result is, perhaps, a shade too pretty, but only a shade, and is real music-making at the highest level.

Yehudi Menuhin at 60 (starts at 1:25:17): Menuhin did not have the overwhelming energy at 60 which he had at 40. Was he any more insightful about this piece at 60 than he was at 40? Not really. But he still could summon up things of which less gifted violinists could never dream. He still incinerated those chromatic arpeggios, he still made the D-Major section into something profoundly moving, and he still brought the whole thing to a passionate and exciting conclusion that made you think you had been through a profound experience.

Nathan Milstein: I used to rate Nathan Milstein higher than I do now. He is, like Heifetz, a supertechnician who does impossible things with his instrument as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Whereas Heifetz overwhelms you with his explosive power, Milstein simply tosses it off. He was a very low-key master, always elegant and tasteful. The urgency you get in the playing of so many other great violinists - the sense that the musical truth they communicate is the most important thing in the world, the sense that they have something to say that you get nowhere else, is usually not present in his playing. But here he is, at 82 years old (!!), giving a performance of technical accomplishment that great violinists half his age would never be able to equal - playing the piece at a faster basic tempo than he ever did when he was younger (!!!). It also happens to be, by some distance, his finest, most urgent performance. Full of tempo bends and amazing shading that comes from a lifetime's living with this work. Milstein and the Bach unaccompanied violin music were virtually synonymous for a half-century - his Bach is a little too self-effacing to my ears, but even at his most diffuse, there is no denying his particular greatness.

Very Good: 

Sajaka Shoji: A wonderful, at times moving, performance by an underrated young violinist who is better than a lot of her better known violin babe colleagues. She is not, however, a violinist of great insight yet. But this is very promising, a performance of passionate temperament. Let's see how she plays this in twenty years.

Thomas Zehetmair
: I laughed when I saw the caption for this video: 'This may be the most ambivalent performance.' Well, no it isn't, not at all. Zehetmair is a very particular type of violinist - a great virtuoso concerned not at all with beauty of tone but only with communication of naked musical truth. In other words, my kinda guy. I can't say I find this performance particularly moving, but I am thoroughly absorbed. Zehetmair has created virtuoso Baroque theater in this, an angry, scorched-earth performance. I doubt this is what Bach had in mind, if anything it sounds closer in spirit to Vivaldi. But it is only possible in the hands of a truly great musician.

Aaron Rosand: Aaron Rosand was, and according to reports still is at 88, the textbook example of a true virtuoso. Menuhin had transcendent heights and days when he sucked, but Rosand was as reliable as the sunrise. Perhaps never truly great, but always very, very good. Rosand was already 70 years old in this performance, and as with Milstein, no allowances for age have to be made. As ever, he never puts a single foot wrong. Every idea he has is musical and gives us a good idea of the spirit of the piece. Everything he did was suffused with imagination, if only he had followed that imagination a little farther. It might have been Isaac Stern who blackballed his career, it might also have been the fact that he never quite seemed to give 100%. The overwhelming personality of Stern, Menuhin, Perlman, was never his way. He was the consummate professional, and his way was always to leave a little reserve in his tank so that the next performance would always be as good as the one before. When you give good performances, year in, year out, for seventy years, you should probably be considered an immortal performer. But the whole of Aaron Rosand's achievement is perhaps more impressive than any one performance.

Henryk Szeryng: David Oistrakh apparently used to joke: "How is it that whenever I hear a violinist on the radio and I don't know who it is, it's always Szeryng?" It's a cruel sentiment, but there's no question that it's grounded in some truth. In his recordings, Szeryng's great quality was his moderation. He had every quality of a great violinist - virtuoso technique, a gorgeous sound, plenty of musical intelligence - but they were all held in such balance that you could rarely remember any distinguishing quality of a Szeryng performance. They were all a little anonymous, generic, bland, faceless... Such is the case with his studio recording, and it's unfortunate because Szeryng clearly was a very fine violinist. It's a fine performance that gets the essence of Bach across, but if you asked me to name anything about it I like or dislike, I'd have a very difficult time knowing what to say. This live performance, which is the one I've linked to, is far more interesting. I have to find some more of Szeryng's live performances, because this suggests a far more commanding, substantial violinist who has many original things to say.

Akiko Suwanai: Here is Akiko Suwanai playing the Bach Chaconne at 18 years old, wearing the kind of girlish dress that no 18 year old woman should ever have to put on. I often think that the 'classical soloist babe' craze comes from the fact that for so long, we infantilized our performers. There are no original insights here, but this is still a wonderful old style Romantic performance, full of lovely shading and phrasing.  I might have ranked this still higher. Unfortunately, she doesn't play the last quarter of the piece! So you'd think the piece has a happy ending...

Schlomo Mintz: I don't know how Mintz's stock went down so precipitously after he was a young man. When he was in his 20's, he was already better than Perlman, Zukerman, Kremer, Chung, Lin, and just about all of his older colleagues. No one since Oistrakh or Adolf Busch drew a sound this beautiful from the instrument, with intonation that was almost infallible. He married it to an rigorous musical mind and a scorchingly passionate temperament. This performance, however, has one serious limitation, which is that he insists on doing the whole piece in a single tempo, and a slow one, with hardly a hint of rhythmic flexibility. In its way, it's an amazing accomplishment that lends Bach an incomparable nobility you get from no other violinist. But in such a unique approach (one you'd think would happen more often), quite a bit is lost. Even so, a violinist as great as Mintz knows how to draw on a dizzying array of shadings from his instrument to sustain interest though his self-imposed limitation.

Yehudi Menuhin at 20: At 20, Menuhin seemed as though he would become the greatest violinist the world would ever know: Heifetz with a brain. What is sad about Menuhin is that at times, he was the very greatest, but he didn't get there very often. To hear him in this recording from 80 years ago is to hear the violinist that might have been. He was not yet a mature artist, not yet under the mystic spells of Furtwangler and Ravi Shankar and Stefan Grapelli who would expand his understanding of music to the highest peaks, but his natural facility was so inborn that he at this age as though his technique was infallible, with an integrity and intelligence and passion which made him fit for the most intellectually and emotionally demanding violin pieces in the world. By his 30's, his technique began to fall apart when his reflexes were not what they once were, and he never truly recovered even if his musical insights into the Three B's (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) went beyond every violinist save Huberman and Busch and maybe Kreisler. Here, in the first ever recorded set of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin, he still plays like an excellent student. Not too many original insights, but real expressivity and excitement.


Josef Suk: Dvorak's great-grandson was the ultimate musical aristocrat. He never interpreted, he simply played, and trusted that his natural judgement and musical instincts would carry the day, and that's precisely what they always did. This is a warm, almost luminous, performance that has no particularly distinguishing features. There is no interpretation, just a fine violinist, almost too fine, drawing his bow across the strings and trusting that his innate sense of proportion will guide the performance to the right places. Inevitably with Suk, they did. Suk will never give you revelations, but he'll always give you a good, well-shaped performance with lots of warmth.

Josef Szigeti: Heifetz or Milstein might be the violinist's violinist, but Szigeti is the 'musician's violinist.' Operating at a much slower basic tempo than most, he mines the contours of Bach's music for minerals and juice that nobody else finds. Holding notes nobody else does to emphasize a different element of Bach's broken up chords, taking as much time as he needs for every potential profundity to register. It's all pretty austere. You would expect a violinist so close to Bartok to be more interested in the virtuoso side of Bach, but even so, it is very much a performance of interest.

Julia Fischer: I'll give Julia Fischer this, compared to Hilary Hahn she's a volcano. In both cases, there is a kind of robotic aw shucksness to both their personae and to their musical expression. No emotion is played up to such an extreme that it would ever challenge make the listener hear anything in the music that they didn't want to hear. To a lesser extent than Hahn, people always say that Fischer plays like an angel. But therein lies the problem - everything is so plain and white that at the end you simply stand in awe of the prettiness of the performance without having felt like you've lived through anything meaningful. Unlike Hahn, Julia Fischer deserves a bit more credit than this. Again, like Hahn, she has musical intelligence in spades, and she is willing to give herself emotionally over to the piece. But she will never contradict what good taste dictates, and will always stay within the bounds of what a good student with an impeccable sound should do. She can draw the listener in emotionally, but everything is too emotionally healthy. If there are no nightmares in her emotional world, it misses a large part of what makes the Bach Chaconne such a compelling piece to so many around the world for so many generations.

Jascha Heifetz: It doesn't really matter what Heifetz recording you review, because they're inevitably the same. Compared to the giants that surrounded him, Heifetz was not only perfection itself but also something of a cipher who had very little original to say about music. But like so many of the supertechnicians of yesteryear who were criticized, often rightly, for their coldness - Toscanini, Weingartner, Szell, Reiner, Karajan, Horowitz, Hofmann, Godowsky, Bolet, Michelangeli, Milstein, Ricci, Kogan, and Heifetz above all... - how full of personality they sound compared to the great technical overachievers of today - who can give completely perfect performances yet leave the music in their hotel rooms. There are times in this performance when this perfect violin machine, alongside his amazing virtuoso fireworks, sounds downright human. It's pretty far from a profound performance, but it's not always superficial either.

Rachel Podger: I had serious misgivings about listening to this performance. Not because I have any particular trouble with the Baroque violin, but because the poster retuned Podger's 415-A to the traditional 440. When you have perfect pitch, this truly interferes with understanding the player's intention - it probably interferes with everybody else's too. Nevertheless, the difference on the Baroque violin is remarkable - no violinist can get this level of clarity on a traditional violin. But clarity is not much of a virtue in of itself. What makes this recording special is the improvised ornamentation - a factor which I'm convinced was far more common in Bach's day than even the freest 'period' instrumentalists employ.  Would that Podger employed still much more of it. I remain convinced that a truly great performance on a Baroque Violin is perfectly plausible, I just haven't heard it. You will never get the sheer heft and charismatic force of the modern violin on a Baroque instrument. The greatness of performers in Bach's day must have come from the ornamentations, the improvisations, the additions and editions, the 'improvements' they made on the original music. I have yet to hear a violinist who can truly capture the improvisatory essence in Bach's Chaconne. I doubt that we will ever hear penetrating artists charismatic after the manner of Menuhin and Huberman ever again. The new great Bach players will be thinner-toned artists with great improvisatory skills.

Arthur Grumiaux: Everybody loves Arthur Grumiaux's Bach. It's certainly good, but what's wrong with me that I don't love what everybody else falls into ecstasy describing? I guess, in a word, it's just too tasteful. The playing is beautiful and, to a point, quite expressive. But there are no unfathomable depths suggested, just good, elegant playing with clean lines and intonation that generates some excitement and never forces you into an ecstatic experience. Coming away from this recording, you'd think that Bach's piece is an engaging but impersonal masterpiece that operates within the limitations of music from an inexpressive period of musical history.

Gidon Kremer: The historically informed performance movement is necessary in music that doesn't give us eternity. Lest that seem like a putdown, there is a lot of very good Baroque music which doesn't quite get us there. But in a piece as great as the Bach Chaconne, it can only spell trouble. It may or may help us get to the Bach which Bach wanted, but it does not give us the Bach we need. Kremer's reading is infused by the period-practice style, and it is only to its detriment. The tempo is too fast and inflexible to hit the mark, but Kremer, surely the best star violinist of his (which includes Itzhak Perlman), will never give a bland performance. Even at his most arid, he rethinks every bar for a mannered performance unlike any other. It feels like a deconstruction of the Bach Chaconne, but even an exercise in intellectual gymnastics tells us something new about the piece we can't hear anywhere else.

Uto Ughi: I have never heard of Uto Ughi before today. Unlike Salvatore Accardo, whose stupefying technique in this piece clearly hid a poverty of ideas, his fellow Italian is clearly a fine player of not quite secure technique who is clearly sensitive to the emotional needs of the piece. Perhaps that's unfair to Ughi's technique, he's clearly in his sixties during this performance, but then again, perhaps it's not fair to the emotional sensitivity required for the Bach Chaconne. The basic tempo here is pretty fast, and rarely is Ughi particularly flexible about it. He does everything he can to feed the emotional needs of the piece without slowing down, and it's admirable how well he does, but there wouldn't have been a problem at all if he were simply a little more accommodating to his, and Bach's, enormous expressive range.

Gil Shaham: Another performance from the Zehetmair/Kremer school, but with a much more smoothened, traditionally beautiful sound. Shaham, perhaps the last of the great Israeli giants to bestride the world stage, is of a completely different type of violinist than Perlman and Stern and Vengerov - in many ways he's much closer to Nathan Milstein in approach. Shaham retains the sweetness of tone which the Russians and Israelis are known for and some of the emotional investment too, but there is a thoroughly modern sleekness about his approach. Tempos are almost always Heifetz-level fast, and there's plenty of visceral excitement. But in comparison to his Israeli forerunners, the resources are a bit more husbanded. There isn't quite the same willingness to throw all of yourself into every note.

Ruggiero Ricci (starting at 12:16): Even today, when supervirtuosos populate the planet, it is startling how clean Ricci's playing can be in the most difficult passages. The most difficult runs are played as though they're nothing at all. His sound is beautiful and tasteful, he never explodes off the strings, and contains beautiful soft playing and shadings galore. Perhaps this is Bach as Sarasate, but you could do much, much worse.

Arnold Steinhardt: A gentle, austere performance that deliberately seems to eschew the usual fireworks. Steinhardt, ever the chamber musician, probably plays 75-80% of this at a piano dynamic or beneath. It's a remarkable achievement, but I doubt it would ever work in any performance space with more than a few people in it. You can tell how closely miked Steinhardt is because the sound constantly shifts fro one speaker to the other, as though every slight movement affects the microphone placement. It never explodes or attempts to reach transcendent heights, but it has a true private vulnerability and tragic dignity.


Julian Sitkovetsky:  The legendary Soviet violinist who died far too early, if he hadn't, it's a fair bet that he'd strip Oistrakh and Heifetz of their laurels. This performance, however, is not one that could be used as evidence of the fact. Sitkovetsky's playing is sensitive and at times somewhat exciting, but it also mistakes lugubriousness for profundity. What sounds cathartic in the hands of the most understanding players sounds in his hands downright bleak. Stick with his son's version.

Sigiswald Kujken and Lucy van Dael: Pre-modern instruments are so different from their modern equivalents that it often sounds like we're listening to completely different works of art which you have to judge by completely different criteria. These two Dutch Baroque violinists were younger contemporaries of early music giants like Leonhardt, Koopman, Bruggen (indeed, Kujken and his family might be said to be giants in themselves). All of the above except Koopman are known for their austerity, and both Kujken and Dael are cut from the same cloth. Both are extremely propulsive performance, relying on the Baroque Violin's natural clarity and rhythmic vitality to carry all before it. It's truly amazing how well the Baroque Violin can do precisely that, but aside from the power of the instrument, there are no particularly special insights or interesting phrasings. Ornamentation is not even as present as in Jansen or Zehetmair. Clearly, both are splendid technicians (and if anything, Van Dael sounds even more adept than the legendary Kujken). Nevertheless, aside from their chosen instrument, there is very little she does to recommend either performance to us.

Maxim Vengerov: Vengerov, yet another Russian-Jewish violinist who happens to only be in his early 40's, is getting near to the end of the line of Eastern Euorpean Jews who play the violin better than anybody else that started well over a century ago with Leopold Auer. He is (or was), for my money, the best in the world today, but the sweet-toned but not always in tune, overt emotion of his style is dying out. Along with Gil Shaham and Nikolai Znaider, he appears to be the end of the line. This is not Vengerov at his best. In the performance I'm linking to, he is playing at Auschwitz, which is a bit vulgar, and playing a Baroque Violin, which at least frees him up to handle the piece a bit more roughly than he does in his other recording on youtube when approaching the piece with a traditional instrument. But aside from playing at Auschwitz, and cutting out the shift to major in the central section, there is still no overall approach that animates the playing. A musician who becomes so animated in Prokofiev and Lalo who is not similarly animated in Bach is not a deep musician. 

Frank Peter Zimmerman: The German violin is coming back. Zehetmair, Zimmerman, Tetzlaff, Isabelle Faust (whose celebrated recording I couldn't find on youtube), and Julia Fischer if you like that sort of thing... Zimmerman does not have Zehetmair's brass balls (nobody except him does), but they share a distrust of sweet-expression (as do Tetzlaff and Faust), and are only interested in the unadorned musical truth of what they play. This is another fast, acerbic performance. It's exciting, but next to Zehetmair and Kremer it's a little more normal seeming, and at times comes across as a very good performance by another very good violinist, only a little coarser. Next to so much of what happens in the contemporary violin world, it's very refreshing. I still wish they wouldn't be quite so afraid of real emotion.

Nicola Benedetti: This is a small-scale, lightweight performance. It will never change anybody's life. It's completely afraid of passion or emotional commitment, but nevertheless, there is real musical intelligence on display here. Beneath the swishing bangs is a violinist of real intelligence and vitality who may one day develop into a great artist. On the other hand, she might not.

Wolfgang Schneiderhan: It's almost too bland to put on this list, but not quite. It's also far too warm in expression to leave off. There are no transcendent heights in this recording, just a slow, steady hike that is perfectly content if it doesn't quite get to the mountaintop.

Christian Tetzlaff: The description of Zehetmair's performance as 'the most ambivalent performance' may apply much better to Tetzlaff. It's an admirable, modernist, performance, that fundamentally chooses to view it as music so absolute that the player seems completely indifferent to whether or not he moves you. There is an admirable integrity in that. It is not a performance for the ages, and if somebody ever held this performance up as a great one, I'd probably fume, but I do appreciate the thought that went into it.

Itzhak Perlman: There is much too much skill here to leave Perlman off this list. Perlman's playing is incredibly warm-hearted and intelligently phrased and shaded, burning with a desire to communicate the sadness and vulnerability of this music. The only problem is that it's lugubrious as hell, almost deliberately ignoring the Bacchic (Bachic?) ecstasy which he makes such a specialty of in 19th century Romantic Repertoire. It's as though violinists like Perlman and Vengerov cease to be themselves in this music, thinking that 'very serious repertoire' like Bach has to be handled with a 'very serious approach' that precludes any of the vibrancy for which they're so well known.

Ida Haendel: Poor Ida Haendel, neglected by the A-list for so many years because she was a woman. This performance was done, like Milstein, when she was already 82, but unlike Milstein, you have to make allowances. It's not just the technique, which is actually better than a performance on youtube from ten years previously. The true problem is caution - the basic tempo is extremely slow. Nevertheless, the spell comes through. Haendel has one of the great violin sounds, a tiny woman who gets the thickest and most luxuriant sound. Even in her eighties, that sound is still there, and lets her amble through to the end of time. Like her Romanian compatriot, Georges Enescu, there are plenty rewards for someone willing to cut through the sheer barrage of technical mistakes (and compared to Enescu's recording, this is nothing...).

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