BACH: Violin Sonatas and Partitas (complete) – Viktoria Mullova, violin – Onyx Classics (2 CDs)

by | Jul 9, 2009 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BACH: Violin Sonatas and Partitas (complete) – Viktoria Mullova, violin – Onyx Classics 4040 (2 CDs), TT: 132:22 **** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

This has to be considered a period instrument performance as Mullova uses gut strings and tunes her 1750 Guadagnini to A = 415. Her evolution towards the decision to “go baroque” in her approach has been a long one, foundationally supported by friendships she has with certain musicians who have encouraged her along this path.

But this recording does not sound like a period performance to me. She uses vibrato in the accepted style, not with uniformity on every note as the greats of earlier years did, and her bowing and articulation do reflect new methodologies, but this occurs even on some modern instrument recordings of recent vintage. Usually a period violin defines itself by the scrawny (some would say “soft”) sound of the gut strings and whining nasality present in the no-vibrato held notes, but Mullova has none of that. In fact, Onyx surrounds her with a lot of reverberation and the result is that this violin has one of the most powerful sounds on record, period.

The load of reverb also gives this standard stereo mix an almost surround sound quality, or at least that is how it sounded on my system, the music swirling around my room in an almost directionless manner. Interpretatively, with her very purposeful tempos and even slow deliberateness in many of the movements (just listen to the opening of the famous Chaconne) this recording reminded me of one of my favorite “oldies”, that of Arthur Grumiaux. It would probably not be taken as a compliment to Mullova if I told her that the whole thing has a certain suaveness about it that perhaps means that no matter how much baroque study is infused into the effort that in the end Mullova will be Mullova and her natural instincts and method of sound production cannot be covered up.

In my book this is good; what I perceive is a modern updating of Grumiaux’s sound and textures with recent accepted baroque performance practice, and this is no bad thing at all. There is a certain detachment, as there was with the older master, who let beauty of tone and mastery of the material speak for itself. There is also hesitancy to let emotions fly freely, also present in Grumiaux but which is new to Mullova, who is one of the more impassioned players on the scene. But the results are gratifying, and this set can easily be recommended. I still find more personality and uniqueness of approach in the recent SACD set by Lara St. John, but there is always room in my collection for playing as fine as this, especially in this indispensably classic repertory.  

— Steven Ritter

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