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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin (ca. 1720)

CD1 [77:56]
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV1001 [19:05]
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV1004 [31:04]
Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV1003 [27:47]
CD2 [76:02]
Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV1006 [20:07]
Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV1002 [29:49]
Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV1005 [26:06]
Oleg Kagan (violin)
recorded live in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 16 April 1989
WARNER ELATUS 2564 61885-2 [77:56 + 76:02]
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What do you get when you cross a truly astonishing musician at the peak of his powers with the greatest music ever written for his instrument, and one of the world’s finest concert halls, packed to capacity? Answer: an unforgettable occasion. And this pair of discs is the evidence!

Everything I’ve said in my opening paragraph is - I like to think - fact, and this disc has got to be worth hearing or purchasing if only to experience the electricity of that occasion. No CD studio recording, nor even a heavily-edited digitally-corrected ‘live’ recording, can replace the sensation of music-making as it happens. This is especially the case with a lone artist intoning some of music’s noblest and most sublime statements, in front of thousands of awestruck listeners, none of them (one imagines…) daring to move or breathe for fear of disturbing the peace, that unpreservable sense of moment!

Where’s the catch, you ask, detecting a note of reservation amidst my passionate eulogy? Well there isn’t one. Not really: not unless you demand perfection. The trouble is, near-perfect music deserves near-perfect playing. And, inspired though Kagan is, there are stylistic oversights and missed opportunities which, once the novelty has worn off, may irritate you. And, technically masterly though his playing is, there is some poor tuning, and countless imperfections - if not ragged patches - which, on repeated listening, may frustrate you. But none of these is of sufficient consequence to warrant singling out here.

Stylistically, this is not as enlightened as the best. Trills are often plain wrong! Old-style long (in the sense of full-length) notes abound, and sprightly detached articulation is a comparative rarity. Of course arpeggiated multiple stops are almost inevitable with modern bows. Unless your name’s Grumiaux, Szeryng, Kremer or Perlman.

Among my disappointments is the voicing of fugues. Kagan seems content to play lines as written, without obviously distinguishing between primary (i.e. important) and secondary (i.e. less important) material. I’m sure this is not so much a matter of making life easier for himself (which it most certainly does) as apparent unconcern for the music’s essential character and structure.

The same concern surfaces in a different way during the great D minor Chaconne. This is a set of variations on a ground bass, and Kagan sees this so much as a unified piece - fair enough, you may think - that he plays through from start to finish without pausing for a breath. Not even the group of D major variations is set apart: it needs the player to set back a pace or two, and quieten. For me, the way Kagan plays this (with insufficient ‘space’) creates a feeling of self-importance. And, mere musician that I am, writing about music passed - so I dare believe - from God Himself through His humblest servant, no mere artist - not even a great artist - has the right to stand in the way of our hearing this music as God, or Bach, intended.

Worshippers of Kagan, and there must be millions of them, will be undeterred. This is a valuable historical document. And, as such, it’s matchless.

Worshippers of Bach should stick with Rachel Podger’s miraculous set on Channel Classics. Or the incomparable Grumiaux on Phillips Duo - one of recorded music’s highest pinnacles. Or try Lucy van Dael on Naxos: wonderful!

Beware of coughs, bumps and applause - you get the lot, in plenty. But you get also some extraordinary playing of extraordinary music, and a record of an extraordinary occasion.

Peter J Lawson

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