Johann Sebastian BACH—Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006—Fabio Biondi, violin—Naïve V7261—2 hours, 19 minutes—****1/2:
It would be difficult to say if the violinist on this record is well known to mainstream classical listeners. He is an oft-recorded superstar in the historical sound world of Baroque repertoire, likely the most famous for his many recordings of Vivaldi: concertos, operas, sonatas… His earlier recording of Bach concertos for Virgin Classics had become a favorite disc of mine, played on repeat for weeks. It was yet another example of what makes Biondi an interesting interpreter.
All of this is introductory fodder for trying to summarize to those who may not already know Biondi’s style—and he has a style. His recording of Corelli’s opus 6 concerti grossi are perhaps one of the most solid examples of his particular approach. Biondi has a career-long record of infusing rhythmic dynamics that challenge the ways in which we’ve traditionally heard or performed the music. My first reaction to the Corelli was that someone had stolen the score and inserted a superfluous amount of accents and other markings all over the score. But far from being a haphazard scattering of dynamic marks, the orchestra took to these in tandem, infusing a quite different feel to the texture and sometimes meter. On one hand, you could look at these edits as an infantile, or even nearly clever way to differentiate the performance from others; you could say “look here, this one has special accents! Listen to how they wreck the rhythmic pulse of the composer’s art revealing a new way to hear it!” It’s that weird middle ground between a historically-informed performance, using original instruments or copies, and a very contemporary desire to muck with the text just enough to make it new or contemporary. That contemporaneousness stems from a performer’s interpretation with which we have no imagination of stemming from historical text or performance practice. One friend of mine, upon hearing the Europa Galante recording of Arcangelo Corelli’s opus 6, was dismissive about the dynamic alterations to the rhythms, declaring at once that he didn’t like it. The words you have just read may indicate that the recording was a tasteless way to have the ensemble differentiate themselves from other recordings.
I pulled up that Corelli, and chose a two minute track, the fourth one on the first disc of Corelli’s second concerto in F. There’s nothing harlequin about the performance, but there is a shape to the phrasing and a dynamic treatment, the use of what we’d recognize as crescendo and decrescendo in the music. Today, at least to me, it sounds fresh and interesting; in 1996, it was downright shocking. It reminded me of why I loved that Corelli so. There were surprises and real attention to the details.
Corelli, for what it’s worth, did not write in such markings; we do, however, have treatises that instruct musicians of the time on how to play (although these, as a canon, are not always in agreement or come from sources common in place or time) and written accounts of the effect musicians had on their audiences. To be fair, Biondi’s approach and style is historically informed, yes. Ultimately, however, the aim of musicians in Bach or Corelli’s time was fairly consistent—they were to use their skills to move the listener. This may seem a universal trait of any musician since the Baroque, but moving you is not the same as pleasing you. This instrumental music was to evoke a number of affections in humans and while codifications of mode, rhythm, and intervals spoke to specific affections, it was the dual art of the composer and performer to make them real in the listener’s mind. This sophistication in musical grammar is all but lost on us today. I spill ink on this because the tools with which performers have to manipulate live within the clusters of notes we call phrases. Ravel’s Bolero is a great musical example of a giant crescendo. In baroque times, these concepts were much smaller, and their diversity spoke to the complex set of emotive analogues the music was designed to convey.
The Bach album I mentioned (originally released in 1999 on Virgin Veritas, now Erato) took this performance style that first appeared in their Corelli discs farther; especially focusing it on Biondi’s solo. It was done no better than in the reconstruction of BWV 1052, left to us as a harpsichord concerto. Biondi’s style further honed, I thought, this could no longer be seen as a contemporary “device” to differentiate his orchestra’s sound from what had been, to some degree, the mainstream “British” sound. Biondi’s dynamic treatment of the solos (especially well done in the concerto’s third movement) were being shaped in what I’ll call here micro phrases. The late Bruce Haynes wrote at length about baroque phrasing in The End of Early Music, pointing to the nature of what might be considered a long phrase in a classical sense and instead seeing the smaller structures that make up that long phrase. These micro phrases are smaller units. Re-listening to the Bach solo concerto, BWV 1052R, or the final Allegro of the Corelli, we can hear the similar treatment of the melodic texts. While to some ears overdone, I think Biondi is consistently using dynamics of volume and rhythm to highlight these micro phrases. The contemporary result is a set of performances that tweak these phrases around the variables of dynamics and time in what becomes a style that, at least now, seems almost uniquely his own.
Baroque violinist Fabio Biondi, then, is an experienced interpreter of baroque repertoire, director of a lauded ensemble, Europa Galante, and, according to the notes that accompany this newest recording, a man who has been inspired by, and has played many times, the Bach sei solo. His calling card is that he’s not afraid to color the micro phrases in his playing with shape, small changes in tempo, and sometimes surprising rhythmic inflection. My expectation then, and so should be yours with this new release, is that this new Bach recording should be interesting.
Biondi writes in his notes that he’s recently turned sixty and that the closing of public performances due to the pandemic allowed him to focus on recording the Bach. He writes too that he was “building up this interpretation” and that he “felt the need to reveal [the] deeper meaning” inherent in the sonatas and partitas. He writes as well about reaching listeners without “a pedantic style” that often “repulses” rather than “unites the universality and modernity of the music.” Maybe I shouldn’t have read that before I listened; but I started the set thinking “we’re going to get some Biondi flavor here, for sure.”
If there is but just one track that epitomizes my expectation and the realization of Biondi’s style, it would be the Presto from the first sonata, BWV 1001. The use of micro phrasing is alive here; the opening phrase, longer in time, is contrasted with smaller cells. Some performers may try and make these equal, but Biondi treats the smaller, rising phrases as separate entities, which I believe is the correct way to conceptualize Bach’s writing. Doing so, for one, in the way Biondi performs them, makes for a far more interesting way to hear the music when the phrasing isn’t quite so regular.
Biondi also isn’t afraid to interject his own notes into the air; shot like arrows in different directions, I picture these ornamentations as sprays of colored paint in the performance space. The Presto is written with repeats and so when Biondi does provide these embellishments they may be surprising but they’re not at all atypical in what we might expect in a dance form that includes repeats. The result isn’t so much about being contemporary or different, there’s a true historical context for embellishing. And what makes it racy, perhaps, is the acknowledgement that the introduction of embellishment in solo Bach has been a controversial affair. For those that like to count bars and notes, and see the numerical order in proportions, one may say that the text has been damaged. This is where I read Biondi’s desire to reach his listeners, with a “deep sense of vitality.” That’s an excellent word, I think, to capture the flavor of Biondi’s playing.
While the music is different in Bach’s first partita, BWV 1002, the same treatment that we heard in the Presto is on display here. Biondi’s insertion of his own embellishments is to be heard across each dance and its double. Of special note is the double of the Corrente, perhaps the most breathtaking and virtuosic of the movements. In the hands of a more mainstream violinist, one who plays with a longer bow and consistent vibrato, this piece is almost always performed akin to some kind of runaway mechanical machine. The result can be beautiful, but Biondi here, the fan of the micro phrase, breaks up this perpetual cascade of notes into smaller groupings which produces a different result. When his final insertions are heard, the phrasing suddenly snaps into focus, and it is almost like hearing the piece anew, for the first time.
Micro phrasing is traded in the Corrente of the D minor partita, BWV 1004 for what I think is atypical long phrasing. While the micro units are still easily heard, Biondi seems to be trying to impose some longer structure onto the dance. It’s exciting for being different, although I can’t be sure it will be to everyone’s liking. He employs a similar approach in the partita’s Sarabande. As a singer these would require big gulps of air, and that’s how I hear this movement, the restraint required to last for a longer phrase period is propels us in an atypical way; for me, I hear this movement very differently than I am accustomed. The Giga presents us nothing new or unexpected, until the repeats. There are few places where Biondi’s sound in the high register suffers, as it did in a few places in the fugue from the first sonata, BWV 1001. (That fugue, however, treats us to Bach’s chordal harmony that under Biondi’s command, has impeccable intonation.) In the gigue, Biondi once again is emphasizing the micro phrases which I think suits the dance well.
The Ciaccona can be thought of formally as a story, and we know that in Bach’s life at the time, there was a tragic one with the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara. This is the one movement from this set that is obviously special, formally a coda, but one that can live outside the structure suite, sonata, or partita. Probably aided by so many recordings, I’ve always thought this movement as a big arch, one giant phrase. It should begin and end with the same care. And between the variations on the repeating bass line, all kinds of smaller structures are revealed. There are some interesting things that Biondi contributes in this most famous movement—whether it be changing our mind on the direction of a string of notes in bariolage, inserting pregnant pauses, or changing the articulation of notes between repeated phrases. I can’t say this reading however left me ultimately satisfied. One could argue that what Biondi accomplishes is leaving the heap of baggage that comes with this piece, in respect to its popularity, the moulding of the piece to virtuosic ends, and the commonalities in performance practice that are perpetuated through recordings, at the door. He infuses his own ideas, for sure, but something leaves me wanting for something just a little more cohesive with the interpretation. I kept thinking, score in hand, that this performance would be an excellent primer on other ways to approach this piece; but something was missing for me in how multiple ideas come together. I was missing the big arc that tied the beginning to the end.
In contrast, the Preludio from the E major partita, BWV 1006, opens with firm confidence. Biondi’s in the laboratory again, playing with differentiating phrases that span just a bar or more; the perpetual energy maintained in this piece helps connect the movement’s first note to the last. The Louré, for me, was less successful, for I ached to feel the pulse for this “slow gigue.” I compared Biondi’s reading with that of Giuliano Carmignola (DG, 2018) and of Isabelle Faust (Harmonia Mundi, 2010), which both did for me a better job at helping us feel the pulse of this French dance. The dance references in the remaining movements in the third partita are always felt at the start of each movement, but that pulse kind of disappears to my ear by the end with Biondi; in the Gavotte en rondeau and the second Menuet we can especially hear the loss of rhythmic pulse. The faster Bourrée maintains a bounce. I do like Biondi’s treatment of micro phrasing in the Gigue, but I also felt this treatment deconstructed the concept of a dance as I heard it. Faust’s reading, clocked much faster, applies a more consistent bar-by-bar pulse, revealing in Bach’s writing phrases that undulate between light and shadow. Bounce is also palpable in Leila Schayegh’s reading (Glossa, 2021). Revisiting Biondi’s reading in one respect is very disappointing, he seems to de-emphasize across these French dances their “dance” pulse; comparisons do however reveal Biondi’s superior tone and what I might go so far as to describe as deconstruction of these dances into pieces one would never consider dancing to, but rather, see as inspired by an rather old and traditional idea.
The C major sonata features at its center what some commentators might call Bach’s most difficult fugue. Bach’s writing on the surface doesn’t appear to be written for what we know as a violin; this example by far illustrates why some have tried a number of ways to play multiple strings at once with, say, a special “Bach” bow. Bach’s writing is clear in terms of differentiating between long notes and short (half notes, say, against quarters or eighths), but the execution of these is rarely as clean as it appears on the page. The opening to this sonata is an Adagio that implores the same lulling dotted rhythm throughout; some interpreters have treated this repetition with growing force. I can’t say for sure what Bach’s inspiration was, but a heartbeat or even the pounding of nails into a cross come to mind. Biondi treats this opening carefully, holding back from any histrionics, and this approach works. The ending of this first movement, however, at once drops the constant rhythmic motif for a melodic phrase that seems to prepare us for something different. One might very well draw a parallel between this end of the first movement with two of the episodes in the following fugue. Biondi approaches the fugue with care; he employs a pretty consistent pulse which the first movement prepared us for. What’s different, perhaps, is his treatment of how he plays the triple and quadruple stops. What a clear contrast we hear when comparing Biondi’s recording with that of Gidon Kremer on ECM New Series (2005). For me Kremer’s overall tempo is a little fast, but his execution of the triple- and quadruple noted chords is altogether a more aggressive, clear, and more consistent affair. Biondi’s execution sometimes rolls up, sometimes down, with attention to allow the melodic member of the chord to stand out. Biondi’s approach is more aligned with baroque violinist Monica Huggett, in the way that she rolls into the chords (Virgin Veritas, 1997). Biondi’s inconsistency in direction of these arpeggiated chords is what will stick out as the interesting aspect of his interpretation.
The concluding movement of the third sonata is another perpetual motion exercise; we could analyze this type of writing, a continual string of mostly sixteenth notes, as requiring machine-like precision. Composers during Bach’s time referenced the rise of mechanical machines and their type of clock-work precision in music. Mechanical devices that showcased perpetual motion appeared long before Bach’s time and by Bach’s time specifically, the construction of mechanisms and models that mimicked living beings were produced. Jacques de Vaucanson in particular had designed a 5.5 foot figure that could play the flute. Which is all to say that yes, some violinists approach this movement with accuracy that might otherwise be attributable to a machine. Biondi’s inflection of dynamics and periods of excitation that push the tempo within a micro phrase all illuminate the very non-mechanical, human take to the music. He furthers this by breaking from the Bachian text in the repeats. The ending, especially for me, brought a smile to my face with his flourish employing 16th note triplets.
There may well be listeners who were waiting for the day that Biondi would release his own Bach solo recording. As of late, a number of baroque specialists have been releasing their own sets as well. While none of them me thinks were poor efforts, few of them match the stylistic flair we hear in Biondi. One in particular came to mind when I read Biondi’s comment of a “pedantic” style. It was technically clean and pure. What ultimately bothered me, however, was how the performances made me feel as if I’d just enjoyed a really clean glass of water. I knew the water was pure and fresh, that no harm would come to me from having drunk it. But sometimes you want a drink that might make you tipsy, or satisfies you by way of its carbonation or from caloric satiety.
This album will suffer over time, perhaps, from not being that type that is textbook and Urtext perfect. My guess is that if Biondi records this at 61, 62, 63, 64 years old—each one will be different. While I am biased to think that most record companies tend to favor a clean strictness in their recording without too much personality, I am always pleased to encounter those recordings that carry the unexpected nuances that more often typify concert performances. This recording is one of these, and despite some of Biondi’s glosses becoming tired over repeated listens, imagine your pleasant surprise when you return to it in ten, if not fifteen years, as I did with his Corelli.
For this review I auditioned both the CD version and the high-resolution streaming version at 88.2kHz via Qobuz at native resolution using a Dragonfly Red portable DAC and Sennheiser headphones. The amount of reverb captured in the recording made for good listening with headphones, ideally allowing us to appreciate the sonic flavor of the instrument without feeling that you’re as close as the performer to his violin. His instrument had a silvery sound, unique I thought if he’d used gut strings; the violin in particular was rich in its lowest range and thin, rather than piercing, on the E string.
This performance may not become everyone’s favorite, but I enjoyed it for its ability to allow me to hear these familiar pieces in new ways. On repeated listens some of this will wash away, but what remains you will come to understand as Biondi’s personal style. Knowing that, there are no real surprises, just the gift of being able to hear something already familiar in novel ways.