BACH: Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano, BWV 1014-1019 – Michelle Makarski, violin/ Keith Jarrett, piano – ECM 2230/31 (2 CDs), 94:46 ***1/2:
These pieces are basically early Bach, though he continued to revise and rework them until the last years of his life. No need to worry there—some of his most popular works had their origin in the courts of Weimar and Köthen, especially in the instrumental realm. These six have retained their popularity for a long time now, and many differing versions compete for record lovers’ attention, though comparatively few are for this combination, most of the more critically successful ones using harpsichord instead of piano.
And I could not care less about that. In fact, one of my favorites to this day remains the wonderfully whacky, musically superb, and interpretatively questionable set from Jamie Laredo and the irrepressible Glenn Gould on Columbia (Sony). Why Laredo and Gould ever hooked up is beyond me; for though Gould was at the time on the cutting edge of Bach historical innovation—though many would question his choices of articulation—he was still a musician who looked at the notes first and the historical period second, while Laredo was still at this point—and maybe always—trapped in a basically new-romantic style of violin playing that brought all of that baggage to Bach. And it worked! It worked because both players were committed to making it so, and both loved the composer which came through glaringly in the recording.
Strangely enough this recording is almost a mirror-image of that one. Here we have Michelle Makarski proving her worth as a period practitioner of sorts, drawing on the last 30 years of Bach scholarship that tells us infallibly how to play his music, though her vibrato can get a little pronounced at times. And Jarrett is the one this time taking the role of Laredo—though he has played a lot of Bach his style of performance still seems grounded from the 1980s, merrily going his own way, which is fine and I like it, but there is a distinct disconnect between the two players along the way. While they seem to enjoy exploring this music together, and in fact have played it before, each sounds as if from a different world in many instances, as if two competing segments of musical history were fighting over interpretative bragging rights. Don’t get me wrong—there is nothing amiss here that will strike anyone as out of bounds and rendering this recording to the dust bins. In their worst moments, such as some occasional barely in tune violin playing (which seems to occur in the slow movements) or some conflicts in ornamentation, it is still Bach played by two consummate artists, albeit in negative engagement; in their “on” moments, especially the fast movements, they click with all the joy and verve you could ever want. I find it a fascinating and maybe slightly perverse take on these works. Then again, maybe my taste in these pieces runs to the perverse side of the road—I am not quite sure. But though I would not want this for my desert island it makes for a highly companionable comparison recording that I am glad to have heard. The sound is resonant and perfectly balanced, as ECM is usually able to accomplish in their chamber recordings.