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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita No. 2 D Minor Ciaccona and its References
Gertrud Schilde (violin)
Jan Philip Schulze (piano)
Norddeutscher Kammerchor/Maria Jürgensen
rec. 2016, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany
Reviewed in SACD & CD stereo
MDG 903 2004-6 SACD [56:24]

Never having previously encountered the musicological studies regarding Bach’s great D minor Chaconne for unaccompanied violin this is the second disc in just over six months to do just that.

For all the musical value of the earlier disc, its worth to the interested listener was severely hampered by a lack of any kind of documentation to elaborate upon the basic premise that the entire Partita No.3 was written by Bach as a response to the tragic loss of two of his own children and a godchild. Fortunately, this new disc does not repeat the sins of omission of the first - in fact the liner note is very detailed even reproducing passages of music - in rather too small print it has to be said - to illustrate the way in which Bach refers to various chorales and cantatas, which focus on the subject of death, suffering and resurrection. More than that, it outlines the numerological argument that implies that the very structure of the work - both in its individual movements and the Partita as a whole - are subject to a series of numbers that define the exact length of movements and when certain musical 'events' occur. The liner itself makes clear that while the linkage to the musical texts are clear, the case for numerology is less certain. The choice of the sung excerpts between the two discs is very similar in terms of repertoire, although the Ensemble Memento on the previous disc choose a more explicitly soloistic/expressive performance style to the deliberate yet beautiful neutrality of the Norddeutscher Kammerchor.

I mention all of this first, because for once I think it is important for the listener to be armed with these details, before approaching the disc. In many ways this cannot be thought of as a 'traditional' recital-type disc. Instead we have a complete performance of the 3rd Partita interspersed with sung unaccompanied chorales which culminates in two performances of the Chaconne (Ciaccona) - the first the original closing movement of the Partita and the second with Mendelssohn's sympathetic piano accompaniment. The earlier disc had the novel idea of presenting a unique quite in-authentic version of the movement where the violin original was overlaid by the sung chorales. For all the frustrations of that disc I must admit I rather enjoyed that as a musical concept and it has to be said it was superbly performed. Here, violinist and choir are kept quite separate. Again performing and musical standards are very high. The Norddeutscher Kammerchor is a sixteen voice group, which perform with admirable control and blend, performing the chorale interpolations with a certain detached coolness but great tonal beauty.

Violinist Gertrud Schilde is fully up to the considerable technical demands of the work. She has a slightly resinous sound that suggests she is using gut strings although she actually performs at modern pitch. She is very much part of the modern school of playing that is not out and out 'authentic', but certainly has embraced elements of historical performance practice. Without doubt it is very different from the grand rhetorical performances of players such as Shumsky, Milstein or even Perlman. Alongside them this could be termed an objective performance of considerable care but emotional restraint. My personal response is that I admire the technical accomplishment of the playing, but find it simply too cool. A case in point is the heart-stopping moment at bar 133 [track 11 7:19] when the music transports miraculously into D major. Schilde is very circumspect here - almost veiled. The liner points out that the implied bass line of this passage outlines the chorale prelude all people must die BWV117. For players of Shumsky's generation and aesthetic outlook this becomes a key passage in the greater narrative of the entire series of six works. With Schilde there is - for me - a disappointing absence of "arrival". Klara Hellgren, the violinist on the Dances of Sorrow disc, builds a far greater head of musical steam here too. I enjoyed Shilde's playing of the preceding movements of the Partita more. Her Corrente is appealingly playful and I like the free fantasy she finds in the Sarabanda. Likewise the Giga is easily brilliant, although I find her rubato around the basic dance tempo too mannered to be wholly effective.

The addition of the Mendelssohn take on the Ciaccona is an attractive bonus. Mendelssohn's admiration for, and association with, the older composer is well-known. This version of the Chaconne comes from the last year of Mendelssohn's all-too-short life and is valuable for the insight it gives the listener into the Romantic composer's perspective on the Baroque master. Rather novelly, the music publishers Peters print a version which includes both Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann's piano accompaniments on adjacent staves. Here the pianist Jan Philip Schulze plays his relatively simple part with great sensitivity. Shilde's interpretation follows similar lines to her version of the solo original, although she takes just 13:16 with the piano in tow as opposed to 14:58 for the solo performance. Again I miss the moments of cathartic resolution or high drama. I am sure there will be many listeners who do not want their Bach over-interpreted and will like this linear and unmannered approach. For me there is much more emotional depth to this music than Schilde chooses to explore.

MDG's SA-CD is very good with both the instrumentalists and singers recorded quite closely in a neutral acoustic, which supports the music without glamourising the sound. The disc has been recorded in standard CD, SACD stereo and 5.1 and MDG's 2+2+2 format. I listened in both standard CD and SACD stereo formats - the latter has a fraction more air, but I would be hard pushed to say that the change in listening format was transformative.

So a disc, which is a very useful reference tool to help a listener marvel all over again at the extraordinary genius that was Bach. Whether individual performances rank with the very best and whether the format of interlacing chorales with the solo violin and finishing with the Mendelssohn accompanied Chaconne makes for a wholly satisfying listening experience is for others to judge. With a fairly miserly playing time of just 56 minutes perhaps some more extended choral excerpts might have been chosen or even a third version of the Chaconne comparing the Schumann with the Mendelssohn versions as mentioned above. For something quite new I would return to the choral/instrumental version on the earlier disc, for unaccompanied Bach alone many other versions provide deeper insights. Ultimately interesting but not involving.

Nick Barnard

Cantata, Ich habe meine Zuversicht, BWV188: VI. Choral, Auf meinen lieben Gott [1:27]
Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor, BWV1004: [17:36]
St. John Passion, BWV245, Pt. I: Choral, Dein Will gescheh [0:44]
Chorale BWV272: Befiehl Du Deine Wege [0:54]
Chorale, Jesu meine Freude, BWV358 [1:01]
Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV277: I. Choral, Christ lag in Todesbanden [1:52]
Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV4: III. Choral fragment, Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt [0:31]
Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor, BWV1004: V. Ciaccona [14:59]
St. John Passion, BWV245, Pt. II: Choral, In meines Herzens Grunde [0:53]
Choral, Nun lob', mein Seel', den Herren, BWV389 [1:16]
Cantata, Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahrenen Herz, BWV 136: VI. Choral, Auf meinen lie [1:33]
Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV4: III. Choral, Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt [1:17]
Cantata, Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim, BWV89: VI. Choral, Wo soll ich fliehen [0:33]
Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor, BWV1004:  [2:44]
Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV277: I. Choral, Christ lag in Todesbanden
Wo soll ich fliehen hin, BWV 5 [0:45]
St. John Passion, BWV245, Pt. I: Choral, Jesu Deine Passion [1:00]
Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor, BWV1004: V. Ciaccona (arr. Felix Mendelssohn) [13:17]



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