Sei Solo = BACH Sonatas and Partitas – Thomas Bowes – Navona Records

Johann Sebastian BACH. Six sonatas and partitas for violin alone—Thomas Bowes (violin)—Navona Records NV6159—164:00, ***1/2:

This recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the “Sei Solo,” are recorded across three discs. My immediate reaction was to question why the recording took three discs, while every other recording I have heard took just two. And so I went reading before I listened to try and discover what was novel about this recording from Thomas Bowes.
Liner notes are funny things; they’ve long been associated with classical albums and give an opportunity from someone [performer, producer, record label, musicologist, etc., etc.] to educate the listener on some aspect (or many aspects) of the music, the recording, or even the instrument(s) used. And as a collector of albums, I feel qualified in saying that not all liner notes are equal and not all recordings come with them (as is often the case when purchasing re-issues). In 2018, I am not sure we need liner notes in the same way we did in 1998, or we travel back to the origin of the term, from somewhere in the mid-twentieth century when all this commentary was printed on the sleeve of a vinyl record.
To wit, this release of Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas for violin has a dedicated page online from Navona Records (Sei Solo – Thomas Bowe) which is a nice thing indeed. There are great notes from Bowes himself in addition to his producer. You can also virtually meet Bowes through YouTube, Thomas Bowes Bach Pilgrimage – YouTube.
I enjoyed learning about Bowes’s approach to Bach, and the series of church concerts that inspired the album. What’s interesting from the liner  notes are two things. First is that these are not live performances from any of the churches Bowes performed within, but instead are takes put together in the Abbey Road studios. It is nevertheless easy for us, I think, to close our eyes and imagine some several hundred year old church or cathedral when we listen to the album; the controlled atmosphere of a recording studio has been adapted to give us the reverberation and spaciousness of a church. The second interesting thing written about is Bowes’s knowledge of, and “sampling” of historical performance practice. The instrument used, an Amati, was fitted with gut strings but with an otherwise modern setup. While acknowledging period scholarship, he writes: “I have always given way to what I feel could be a more universal or timeless expression… it is profoundly private music and the attitude in which these recordings were made was at all times to try and play as if on my own.”
The “three disc” question wasn’t particularly satisfied in these notes. Bowes simply takes some of the movements at a slow pace. The opening Adagio from the G minor sonata, BWV 1001, clocks in at over six minutes; his Chaconne from BWV 1004 at over eighteen (!). The question about timing becomes an interesting one, especially if you’re an outlier. Is it because you need to play them slower, to accommodate the acoustics? Because you want to linger and savor the music? Or because you feel it was the intent of the composer to play them slow(er), or because there’s something new to hear when we slow the tempo down?
The initial impression of the set is that opening Adagio, BWV 1001.1. And that first impression for me was not a fair one; the slow speed at which Bowes plays seemed agonizingly painful. I couldn’t finish the track played that slow. There is a “wet” acoustic (similar to the nave, perhaps, of a medium sized gothic church), but it seemed an intentional practice to slow the music down. Perhaps it was, as I opine, Bowes wanting those notes for himself (e.g., it is profoundly private music).
Bowes doesn’t linger the same way with the remaining movements of the opening sonata. By the time we arrive into the Presto, we’re not speeding, but he adopts a quite springy rhythmic pulse that is punctuated with heavy accents, offering us a nicely contrasted style to the opening movement.
As someone who almost exclusively spends time listening to baroque music on historical instruments (in their historical setup), there is always interest in hearing this music from a different perspective. Bowes desire to present this music as personal, with the style coming from him, rather than a musical treatise, is something I can appreciate. The sound of his instrument is sweet and the recording supports it well. I am less inclined to understand how an expression can be “timeless,” as he writes, because there are elements of his performance that, taken as a whole, are an amalgamation of baroque and romantic styles. The controls he is toying with, from tempo, to accents, space, performance of double stops, vibrato, and dynamics are all his to manipulate.
Vibrato is the one I have a distaste for. And I know my distaste for continuous (and worse, continuous wide) vibrato spans beyond baroque repertoire. That said, Bowes vibrates, but it is done in a way that offers a real sweetness to his tone. It is not so overdone that we might conclude that the recording was made fifty years prior. Yet, I do need to come clean and point it out. It’s not my thing, and I know plenty of folks for whom vibrato is not a big issue.
Those other elements I mention, dynamics, the utilization of space between some notes (and not others, played legato), tempo, and most of all, accent, are all elements I find attractive in Bowes’s performance. Aside from the aforementioned opening movement of BWV 1001, other movements with longer-than-average tempos are all executed with service to the music. The seven minute Andante from BWV 1003 is difficult piece, interpretation-wise. You’re playing two parts on one instrument, a lovely melody supported with a pulsing bass underneath. It’s one of the movements that can challenge the greatest technicians. Bowes, here, despite approaching the piece quietly and softly, uses the slower tempo to his advantage. I don’t always want to hear this piece played this slowly, but the chosen tempo here is a welcome departure in service of the music. Bach’s music is surprisingly tolerant of elements like speed, and while more violinists today may err toward the fast side of things, I like this counterpoint.
The same could be said for the Giga that precedes the final Chaconne, or Ciaconna in the second partita, BWV 1004. This piece can survive a fast tempo. The energy is infectious. But this reading is very different; it’s thoughtful, it’s beautifully shaped, and in slowing things down, allows us all to enjoy the mechanics all the more carefully.
The eleven minute fugue from the third sonata, BWV 1005 might scare some at the track length. But again, Bowes does no disservice to the music by taking his time; instead, I believe, he illuminates the music in a way that might be best described as getting the special opportunity to examine a fine oil painting with a magnifying glass. We are afforded the opportunity to appreciate some detail when the tempo is slowed. That’s not to say a fast performance can’t work as well, but this, I think, is what I discovered when it comes to the “personal” approach Bowes brings to the music.
I no doubt believe that Bowes likely tried a lot of different interpretations throughout his Bach Pilgrimage performance project. Sadly in a recording, at least those produced today, we have to stop at one interpretation. But these are issues no doubt in the minds of Bowes and his producer Stephen Frost. And while this recording wouldn’t be my single desert island interpretation of the three solo sonatas and three solo partitas by Bach, I am a richer person for having experienced them. Bowes is a most competent musician with deeply musical ideas and gifts to convey them. His recording would make a welcome addition to a collection of Bach, proving once again how many different ways we can experience this profound music.
— Sebastian Herrera

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