Recorded July and September 2004
About Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin BWV 1001-1006 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin have inspired divergent interpretations - perhaps more divergent even than any other Bach works. Some players treat them as mystical, hermetic texts and strive for a kind of severe beauty. For violinists of the Romantic school, by contrast, they were often supremely passionate works, with a full catalog of expressive devices married to the most technically challenging materials. For Baroque violinist John Holloway, they are something else again: "a compendium of Baroque violin technique [that] is both a challenge and an opportunity." Holloway's agile readings fall into a group that treats Bach's works as the apex of a series of technical studies that dated well back into the seventeenth century, rather than as strange and isolated works. He makes a strong case for the appropriateness of the Baroque violin in these pieces - it seems throughout that the music, while certainly difficult, doesn't make him sweat. Passagework runs off the strings in flowing streams. The tough second-movement fugue in the Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, sounds brisk and clean in its double and triple stops, not - as they can in lesser hands on a modern violin - like someone trying to start a lawn mower. And after hearing Holloway you'll never listen to the massive Chaconne that closes the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, in quite the same way again. The sheer difficulty of this movement seems to cause players, especially those who normally traffic in the Romantic classics on a modern violin, to imbue the central shift to D major with a kind of cathartic triumph. Holloway is considerably more restrained, and the music he makes here doesn't seem quite so extreme; the work as he plays it seems more of a piece with the rest of Bach's output, and that's probably a good thing. ECM recorded the work at the Propstei St. Gerold, an Austrian monastery with live, brilliant sound that's lovely for choral music but a bit lofty and lonesome for violin music intended for the well-upholstered chambers of a noble family. Holloway's calm application of superior skills to this music, however, comes to seem entirely appropriate as you immerse yourself in his performance.
All Music Guide
Rarely has this music been played so naturally and with seeming effortlessness, with such a commanding knowledge of both formal proportions and idiomatic character. John Holloway, one of the most distinguished baroque violinists of our time, has researched and practiced these works for forty years. Specializing in the repertoire from the baroque period (1600-1750) he perceives Bach in the context of his predecessors and contemporaries - such as composers like Schmelzer, Biber, Veracini (whose works he has presented in highly praised recordings in recent years) rather than in the perspective of romantic and modern violin literature.
Holloway's approach helps to highlight the extraordinary qualities of Bach's three sonatas and three partitas. "Obviously composers like Vilsmayr, Biber, Westhoff and Pisendel had written remarkable compositions for unaccompanied violin before Bach", says Holloway, "but nothing really prepares us for this kind of perfection. If we refer to Bach's solo violin compositions as the Everest of violin literature we have to be aware that this mountain rises with an almost shocking abruptness above the plain. One is faced with an unprecedented combination of both musical quality, technical challenge, and intellectual range."
Historically informed performance practice for Holloway translates as: "The more you know, the more you understand." Holloway is convinced that every note, every detail of articulation and every slur must have been put down by a well-versed and actively practising violinist and he therefore concludes that Bach was likely a far better violinist than has commonly been thought. "Everything Bach writes is playable, and things that, in the course of the performance history, have constantly been dismissed as merely speculative and therefore completely unviolinistic in fact prove to be conceived with the instrument in hands. Many details are even very original technically." Holloway has suggested that Bach may even have had in mind a kind of violin manual, "a 'Geige-Ubung' for himself which, as well as establishing the limits of what he might expect from himself and other violinists in the future, perhaps also helped with his thinking about the great 'Clavier Ubung' to come."
"What is Bach teaching me?" is Holloway's pre-eminent question to himself when working on the music. In his view didactic purposes can be seen not only from the astonishing variety of forms and compositional characters or from the way Bach focuses on one particular aspect in every movement. It's the almost complete coverage of technical problems that stresses the methodical layout of the group of works. Except for the staccato, every known bowing and any conceivable way of string crossings are asked for, and of course there are multi-stopped chords in all different constellations. Understanding these aspects of course doesn't imply that Bach's Sonatas and Partitas should be considered mere studies; Holloway rather understands the supposedly just "technical" specifics as crucial information on the works' idiomatic character. Consequently he strictly plays from Bach's autograph score respecting all the written slurs - an unusual choice in the performance history of Bach's unaccompanied violin works. "All these technical details - however uncomfortable they might seem at first sight - provide us with essential advice on the pronunciation of the text. The slurs and written bowings tell us a lot about the right dynamics and adequate tempi which of course are a central prerequisite of any convincing interpretation."
The graphic image of the famous autograph of the "Sei solo" for Holloway is a source of inspiration in itself. "This calligraphic handwriting looks so lively, so incredibly confident and full of verve, but at the same time it's very subtle and filigree, almost like a Faberge egg. All this has to come together in the interpretation: beauty and precision, a personal statement and universal meaning."