December 09, 2021


Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Fabio Biondi, violin. Naïve. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Telemann: Fantasias 1-12 for Solo Violin. Thomas Bowes, violin. Navona. $14.99.

Edward Cowie: Bird Portraits. Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin; Roderick Chadwick, piano. Métier. $18.99.

     Certain solo-violin works loom above performers like Mount Everest, and like the mountain, need to be surmounted because they are there. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin are emphatically among these, partly because of their sheer difficulty, partly because they have been performed by so many of the greatest violinists, and partly because in a sense they are not audience-focused works at all. These are intimate pieces, private works that encourage (and perhaps require) a violinist to be fully attuned to himself or herself and to let introspection and self-understanding permeate every performance. It is in this respect, one of intimacy and self-knowledge, that the new Naïve recording of the works by Fabio Biondi excels. Biondi is well-known for period performances and is always sensitive to historically accurate approaches without allowing historicity to turn into academic rigidity. This approach serves the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin well, given that the sonatas are somewhat formulaic in structure while the partitas are more free-flowing and variegated – allowing Biondi greater expressiveness within a historically informed context. Thus, his treatment of the three fugues – the second movement of each sonata – is notable for richness of tone, clear accentuation, and interesting differentiation of the works within their similar formal structure: for example, the fugue in Sonata No. 2 is nearly dancelike, that in No. 3 stately and almost severe. The freewheeling elements of the partitas also showcase Biondi’s thoughtfulness and his ability to highlight both the dance-derived elements of the music and its more-sober ones (notably in the Sarabande movements of the first two partitas). The massive concluding Ciaccona of the second partita encapsulates Biondi’s multifaceted approach: the contrapuntal elements throughout are presented with clarity and sure-handedness, while the contrasting lyrical material flows with a gentle elegance that allows the movement to be both monumental and intensely personal. Biondi’s poise, careful articulation and rhythmic precision throughout the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin make this two-CD release worthwhile on all levels.

     There is a certain persistent sense of the elevated in Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin that places them in contrast to the earthier, more outgoing, and in some ways more directly communicative Fantasias for Solo Violin by Telemann, which were written somewhat later (mid-1730s vs. 1720 or so for the Bach works) and which encompass a wider variety of musical styles. Biondi has recorded the Telemann cycle in the past, but he is scarcely the only violinist to have found these works intriguing in their stylistic amalgams and expressive potential. Thomas Bowes’ new recording for Navona shows just how much joy and verve is to be had in the Telemann fantasias, whose structure is simpler than that of the Bach sonatas and partitas: four of the Telemann works are in four movements, the other eight in three, and the fantasias are neatly arranged in groups of three – the first two of each group in major keys, the third in the minor (F, E, B and A minor, respectively). Telemann does not eschew contrapuntal elements in his fantasias, but he mixes them willy-nilly, and to very fine effect, with rhythmically graceful material akin to that of Vivaldi and Corelli, and also with elements of the then-rising galant style. That style is apparent, for example, in the opening Dolce of Fantasia No. 7 in E-flat – which is followed by a vigorous Allegro, a sentimental Largo, and a minute-long concluding Presto that is bright and cheerful. Yet that whole fantasia lasts only eight minutes – and, at that, is the second-longest of the set, behind the nine-minute No. 6 in E minor. Telemann in these fantasias was considerably more outgoing and much more interested in engaging the audience than Bach seems to have been in his Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin: the Telemann works dip into folk music, often ask for speedy tempos (Presto designations appear six times, vs. none in the Bach sonatas and partitas), and consist most of the time of very short forays into specific moods and forms (the longest of the fantasias’ 40 movements lasts barely three minutes). All this invites performers to kick up their figurative heels a bit when playing the Telemann, in a way that does not really work in the Bach sonatas and partitas. And Bowes clearly understands this, playing the Telemann fantasias with relish and with a level of enjoyment that comes through quite clearly throughout this CD.

     The expressive potential of the violin has been much further plumbed in the centuries since Bach’s and Telemann’s time, and continues to intrigue composers today. Edward Cowie (born 1943), a painter and author of books on nature as well as a musician, was the first Artist in Residence with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Great Britain and has tried to use the violin to explore 24 British birds in Bird Portraits for violin and piano. The interesting approach that Cowie uses for this extended suite (which lasts some 70 minutes) is one of musical commentary on the birds and their environment – not simply an attempt to paint musical pictures of the avian creatures. Thus, there is no hooting in either the Barn Owl movement or the one called Tawny Owl, the movements instead given over to a kind of seriousness of setting (mostly through the piano) and attempted characterization of the birds’ personality within the avian world (mostly through the violin). There is nothing here pointing specifically to the high intelligence of the Magpie; while Green Woodpecker is somewhat jittery, there is no obvious pecking to be heard; Osprey is not obviously a fish-hunting predator; and so on. Enjoyment of the suite really requires listeners to be familiar already with the birds and their habitats – the work is in a sense extra-musical, which is why the Métier CD featuring Peter Sheppard Skærved and Roderick Chadwick is a (+++) release for most listeners, although surely a (++++) one for dedicated birders. Certainly the variety of birds on display in Bird Portraits is impressive, including everything from the Mute Swan to the Great Crested Grebe, Bullfinch, Wood Warbler, Curlew and others. But if you do not already know what birds these are, what they look like, where they live, how they sing and put on displays, and how they fit into the overall environment, then the music associated with them by Cowie will be no more than intermittently interesting. There is simply nothing here to prevent the non-cognoscenti from mixing up the Bittern with the Wren with the Great Northern Diver: Cowie surely knows what elements of these birds’ appearance and habits his music is intended to reflect and elucidate, but only listeners in the avian-studies field – or ones willing to enter it for a time, for purposes of enjoying Bird Portraits – will get the full effect of what Cowie is trying to convey. The fine performances by Skærved and Chadwick are not enough to make this music into anything more than an intriguingly conceived concept targeted at a small niche of music-and-nature lovers.

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