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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (c.1720)
Sonata No.1 in G minor BWV 1001 [16:09]
Partita No.1 in B minor BWV 1002 [26:26]
Sonata No.2 in A minor BWV 1003 [22:15]
Partita No.2 in D minor BWV 1004 [27:28]
Sonata No.3 in C major BWV 1005 [21:12]
Partita No.3 in E major BWV 1006 [17:11]
Devy Erlih (violin)
rec. 1969
DOREMI DHR8061-62 [2 CDs: 130:41]

Devy Erlih’s cycle of the complete sonatas and partitas was recorded in Paris in 1969. Slowly his recordings are being reissued and this latest entrant joins a handsome selection on Forgotten Records, as well as boutique live recitals from the likes of Meloclassic.

Originally on three Adès (Florilège) LPs, Erlih’s set certainly didn’t generate the kind of wide critical coverage garnered on far better-known international labels from the likes of Grumiaux and Milstein, and Erlih’s cycle has thus remained in a box labelled ‘connoisseur collection’ – usually something of a kiss of death.

His aesthetic is in any case very dissimilar. Despite being a student of Thibaud, as well as Enescu, I have invariably found that the Enescu-inspired predominates when it comes to tone production. There is little of the former’s sensuous elegance but very much more of the latter’s incisive masculinity, with its moments of roughness in bowing. He is also more overtly expressive than either Grumiaux or the immaculate Milstein and one feels at all times that Erlih is embarking on a sinewy narrative journey – sample the Siciliano of the G minor Sonata, for example, or his rugged, emphatic playing in the first Partita where he avoids any sense of precious or over-refined phrasing. Instead he is utterly committed, reminding one of Enescu’s own technically flawed but interpretatively illuminating set of the sonatas and partitas.

Sometimes Erlih rattles breathlessly through movements without exploring or even implying the underling dance patters, something I rather feel he does in the finale of the C major Sonata and in the first Partita’s Double, though its Sarabande is unusually introspective in his hands. If the Fuga of the A minor Sonata can sound resinous, its dangerous charge illustrates his full-bloodied approach to the repertoire, as does the overt expression of the same work’s Andante. The direct approach to the Chaconne, where he is not guilty of any excessive sculpting of phrases, is powerfully cohesive as a result, though doesn’t always give one a comfortable aural ride. Perhaps Erlih’s communing ethos is heard in its most concrete and crystallized form in the Largo of the C major sonata; rapt, intense playing devoid of all showiness.

Though one can hear residual LP hum, and a few edits which are impossible to eradicate, of course, the transfer has been very satisfactorily achieved. There’s a brief biographical note from Jacob Harnoy and it’s a nice touch to have reproduced the LP sleeves in the booklet. This formidable, craggy, individualistic set offers a very different slant on the sonatas and partitas from one commonly heard today, and is all the more welcome for it.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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