J.S. Bach: Isabelle Faust – Violin works (8 CDs plus DVD) – Harmonia Mundi 2904032.40; *****
The new 8 CD box set of Bach recordings featuring Isabelle Faust on the violin is a spectacular example of holiday generosity. The box collects all four of her Bach recitals, each in a double cd package. As a bonus there is a DVD of a performance at the Thomaskirche from 2020 in which Faust shows off the famous “sleeping beauty” stradivarius on a program that includes some of the solo violin works written almost exactly 200 years ago by that church’s most famous capellmeister.
Isabelle Faust is one of that illustrious group of violinists which include Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Christian Teztloff, Rachel Podger and James Ehnes emerged in the 90’s. Each of these artists has taken Bach as an ultimate measure of technique and musical depth. For Faust it has been a patient and steadfast campaign. In this two decade period she has delivered fine recitals of Beethoven, Bartok, Berg and Mozart but she has always returned to Bach and now she has arrived at a stopping point with the completion of the major works. It is the set of sonatas and partitas, BWV 1007-1012 that is the center point of this set, as it is for both the solo violin repertoire in general as well as in Bach chamber music.
Faust recorded these in 2010 on a 1704 Stradivarius known as the “sleeping beauty”. These readings received much praise; in a crowded field (Tetzloff is a crowd of one with three complete sets) her recordings stand out for at least two qualities: superb control of line and purity of tone. She banishes the vibrato almost completely while yet coaxing warmth from her gut strings. For me this recording falls into the “depth” side of the spectrum. Polyphonic architecture is to the fore, rather than the pulse of the dance. These are superb recordings by a serious artist at the top of her game. The splendor is more like that of staring at an infinite winter sky full of stars and animated by the Aurora Borealis. For the warmth of the hearth I would look to the recordings of Rachel Podger or James Ehnes. But Bach’s world is big enough to accommodate both approaches.
All the more surprising though is her treatment of the sonatas for violin and harpsichord obligata (BWV1017-1023). Written about the same time, these pieces are no less ambitious but showcase a different side of Bach, especially in the cantabile singing of the slow movements. Meanwhile the harpsichord, ably played by Kristian Bezoudenhout, charts a new approach to the trio sonata with the two parts of the piano banishing the conventional second violin (or wind) voice. The music is dramatic in the extreme in the bustling outer sections and deeply moving in the adagios. Faust sets aside the Stradivarius for a 18th century instrument which to my ears is warmer. Her tone takes on a new color, vibrato is still modest but the whole session is less austere than her instrument in the solo works. There is certainly some freedom taken in ornamentation- here the harpsichordist shows originality and superb taste. These are superb recordings which should make ever more friends in this new box set.
The violin concertos span two discs, and are notable for including some reconstructed concertos, adaptations from the harpsichord concertos. The logic goes like this: surely Bach wrote some concertos that were lost and later he adapted some parts for harpsichord. Possible but does it matter? These adaptations are very well done They also draw on the Sinfonias. I only wish there were more of this material. The 3 well known concertos are some of the most oversubscribed Baroque music. Their familiarity is sometimes an obstacle to hearing them afresh. Thus the inclusion of these newly constructed versions is very welcome. These readings are first rate in any case. Even better though are the two adaptations of trio sonatas originally for organ. These works (and almost everything in this set) were written in the Bachs happiest period at Cother between 1717-1723 when he had full license to push the boundaries of chamber music, both in the interests of his own kind of science, and for personal reasons connected to his family. (The trio sonatas were a special gift for his oldest son Friedemann, while the famous Chaconne is thought to be a tombeau for his tragically deceased first wife.)
We also are offered the Brandenburg concertos again. These recordings were reviewed on these pages not so long ago; The feeling of exhilaration that they left with this reviewer has still not dissipated. What stood out was the separation of voices in the strings with the rich sonority of Antoine Tamestit’s viola balanced nicely against the warm sound of Faust’s strad. Also remarkable were the fast tempos which put a premium on the collective virtuosity of the accalied Akademie fur Alte Musik.
No label can boast a viola and violin pair such as Antoine Tamestit and Isabelle Faust
Finally it merits mention that these are very generously priced and handsomely packaged. The original liner notes, both substantial and personal are not included here but are replaced with an interview in which Faust briefly comments on motives and meanings related to her work.
This set would be my first choice for a gift to any lover of classical music, all violin teachers, as well as the most discriminating collector who has somehow missed any of the original issues.
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