Tag Archive: Violin


Nathan MilsteinNathan Milstein’s performances of Bach’s music for solo violin are of a special kind.  There is a rare intensity, rare focus in his playing.  You can actually hear the concentration – both in the emotive power and in the architectural design that he draws from the music.  This is as true of his 1950s recordings on EMI as it is of his 1970s versions on Deutsche Grammophon, and you can take in a wildly good 1968 television performance of the work here.

Bach was thirty-five years-old and living in Cöthen when the Chaconne was published in 1720 as part of the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin.  It was conceived as the last movement of the Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, and stands as the culmination of Bach’s chamber music output.  Structurally speaking, the Chaconne consists of 27 variations built over a simple bass figuration.  Deeper still, it is a flight full of struggle and of eventual reconciliation, a journey that everywhere pushes.  It pushes the practical limits of the violin, the technical limits of the interpreter, and the conventional limits of the musical imagination.

Milstein’s vision of the Chaconne is full of white light, of white heat.  I have other favourite performances of Bach’s music for solo violin, but I hear in Milstein’s a measured intensity that I don’t find elsewhere.  It overwhelms.  Milstein’s interpretations were the first to make me realize just how emotionally searching this music can be.  His were the recordings that made me ask: How can we begin to approach this music?

Musicians have gone about it in different ways.  Among the more notorious, it was none other than Johannes Brahms who expressed his bafflement at the scope of the work, and responded by writing a now-neglected piano transcription for the left-hand.  Italian virtuoso Feruccio Busoni’s controversial piano transcription (and rewriting!) of the Chaconne has now become an accepted  part of concert programs.  And then there’s Stokowski’s sonorous take, his transcription of the piece for full orchestra.  There are others still; and while purists may disapprove of the “liberties” taken by such creative efforts, I view them as invitations to see the Chaconne in a new light. 

As I see it, the views of purists can be stale right out of the gate.  But Bach has no best before date.

Moving deeper still: In 1994 German music professor, Helga Thoene, suggested that Bach had built the Chaconne on motifs from his choral works – and that the texts of these quoted pieces suggest that Bach conceived the Chaconne as a hidden memorial to his wife, who had died earlier in the year that it was composed.  A recent project by violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble attempts to sound out Thoene’s theory.  And while the idea that the Chaconne has a secret or esoteric meaning is a speculative one – a groping for something that might not be there – it stands, again, as a reminder that there is still so much to be found in this music.  (You can decide for yourselves here.)

Morimum: Christoph Poppen & The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series, 2001)Interpretations of this kind take risks.  And they should: because this music takes risks; it has reach.  Isn’t it best to explore it and to hear it in a spirit similar to that in which it was conceived – one of openness, invention and discovery?  Renewal is what I hear when Milstein begins the meditative middle section of the Chaconne.  It is the breaking of a new day. 

I’m reminded of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and I know that there are at least as many ways of seeing the Chaconne.  

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Recommended Recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin:

  • Nathan Milstein (Deutsche Grammophon, 1973)
  • Itzhak Perlman  (EMI, 1995)
  • Henryk Szeryng (Deutsche Grammophon, 1968)

Also Recommended:

  • Morimur: Christoph Poppen & the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series, 2001)

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Menuhin plays Elgar / Bruch: Violin Concertos (Naxos)Edward Elgar is slighted in some classical circles as a composer of forgettable music.  But I’m really drawn to a number of his works: among them, his late string quartet and piano quintet, his cello concerto, and the work I here want to highlight, the violin concerto in B minor, Op. 61.  Each of these pieces is well worth discovering.

I was fortunate enough to come across a 1932 recording of Elgar’s violin concerto in a used CD bin here in Toronto.  Issued as part of the Naxos Historical series, it features a sixteen year-old Yehudi Menuhin in breathtaking form, with the composer himself at the podium. 

Had Menuhin’s voice even broken by the time he recorded this? I wondered.  The performance made me forget I’d asked.  Long story short: this is one of the best available recordings of Elgar’s music.

This particular session was also released by EMI as part of its “Great Recordings of the Century” series.  EMI couples it with the composer’s Enigma variations.  On this Naxos disc, we have it coupled with Menuhin’s 1931 performance of Max Bruch’s first violin concerto.  To my ears, the Naxos issue is a better sounding disc.  The source material, admittedly, places clear limitations on the sound; but producer Mark Obert-Thorn’s audio restoration is up to his usual high standard, and I’m grateful to have this historic performance in as vivid a sound as the source material allows.

It would be unfair merely to say that that Menuhin is in fine form on this occasion.  This is musicianship of the highest caliber: a performance I would play for anyone who claims that child prodigies necessarily sacrifice artistry at the altar of showmanship.  There is no spirit of display – no pomp, no circumstance – here.    Though knee-high to a grasshopper, Menuhin is able to impart to the violin concerto a level of artistry which eclipses that of other, more seasoned musicians.  So pleased was Elgar with Menuhin’s performance that he took the young violinist out for a day at the races (one of Elgar’s great hobbies) rather than take a stab at another take in London’s Abbey Road studio! 

A historical document, certainly – but a living testament to the greatness of this music.
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Naxos Historical – Elgar / Bruch: Violin Concertos (Naxos 8.110902)
Yehudi Menuhin, Violin
London Symphony Orchestra
Edward Elgar, Conductor

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