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Reviews: Bach: Sonatas & Partitas - Julia Fischer

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Site review by ramesh May 4, 2005
Performance:   Sonics:  
The violin is arguably the most intractable string instrument to record in PCM digital, the high frequencies eliciting the worst in phase effects and decimation filtering with limited bandwith. The first two sets of Bach solo violin I listened to were Oscar Shumsky's analogue ASV set recorded in 1982, and Perlman's digital of 1986-7. Shumsky's had a hard and close acoustic( De Selby précis ; violin bad, rest good ) Both set the ears ringing on an nonupsampling CD player, with ironically, the limited sound of Szigeti's 1955 versions on Vanguard less grating. No wonder Testament recorded Ida Haendel's 1995 set in analogue. An upsampling CD player made the sound of Perlman's version much more tractable though the cello suites sounded okay on the earlier player. It has taken an upsampling player with a finite impulse response filter to finally make digitally recorded violin sound almost pleasant; only on the last player could I distinguish the different violins Perlman used in his EMI recording.

I have not encountered a better recorded violin than on the current Fischer set; it has an ideal blend of direct string sound, and that emanating from the soundbox proper. Mellow and satisfying in every parameter, and a magnificent achievement on the part of the Pentatone engineers, even if I was listening only in stereo. Congratulations! I fear some reviewers may whinge it is slightly overresonant, but this may be due more to their inadequate reproducing equipment. These pieces were recorded in a church. I have heard these Bach works performed in a similar venue, and the urbane but detailed and fulsome sound here is a faithful replica. Even if this were only assessed on sound quality, I would recommend these works, if only as a sonic benchmark.

Fischer's liner notes make the exhaustive point that though she may be 21, she has played Bach almost daily from the age of nine, has intensively studied them for six years, including with Menuhin. What she astonishingly says nothing about are the reasons she has elected to perform these works the way she does, and whether baroque violin performance has influenced the lighter and unmonumental way she has chosen to render the Old Testament of the violin. Frankly, Pentatone need to reissue the liner notes and DVD with this needed explanation, especially when the DVD is a trivial 11 minutes long and shows more of the woman's coffee drinking ( elegant hand movements, no slurping nor lipstick marks on the china ) technique than it does her bowing. Her website, juliafischer.com , has the standard photo gallery and performance schedules, but makes no mention as to her interpretative choices.

Timings. Fischer's performance are spacious, exceeded only by the ageing Szigeti and Haendel. Comparisons can be difficult due to the varying amount of repeats taken. My comparisons are with Perlman, Menuhin circa 1956 and Szigeti 1955. The three solo sonatas have 4 movements, the first a prelude-like adagio, followed by an intense and technically demanding fugue.
No1 Perlman 4:27, 5:32, 3:09, 3:30 ; Fischer 4:41, 5:55, 2:59, 3:35. No2 P 4:45, 8:17, 5:29, 5:29 F 4:53, 8:12, 5:30, 5:34
No3 P 5:04, 10:36, 3:13, 5:17. F 5:20, 10:33, 3:55, 4:46 As is evident, ostensibly not much variation, at least in terms of tempi.
However, there are massive differences in approach between her and the listed comparisons. In these unaccompanied solo works, the bass has to be defined by multiple stopping. There has been much discussion as to whether Bach composed with a different bow in mind, which would make chording easier both to execute and listen to. There has been no definitive conclusion on this, in large part because there are neither letters nor documentation from the composer relating to the performance of these works.( Apparently, Szigeti was fond of saying the 'the Bach bow is bow-loney'! ) Fischer deploys generally the lightest multiple stopping, which makes the result easier on the ear, with minimal jangling, but it also makes the harmonic underpinnings vaguer, with less sense of solidity. The advantage is that the spirit of the dance is far more palpable here than in all above listed comparisons. One would have thought this approach is better suited to the Bach sonatas with keyboard obbligato. Her lithe bowing style brings out the sprightliness of the rhythms. What she doesn't quite achieve is Menuhin's and Szigeti's shrewdness in being able to inflect minute tempo adjustments to structure the longer spans of the works, from one phrase to its companion, notwithstanding the latter's bowing frailties.

In the sonatas, the opening slow movement and subsequent fugue appear to my ears to be compositionally linked, like a Bach organ prelude and fugue. If Bach utilised this schema three times, there must be compelling psychological reasons; namely, the tension and gravity( the opening movement of the second sonata is actually marked, 'grave') generated in the slow opening being dissipated in the propulsive vitality and contrapuntal ingenuity of the fugue. Here, compared to Menuhin, Szigeti and Perlman, she plays the opening movements very gently indeed. Clearly, if she has pondered these works for six years, she doesn't believe that one has to generate harmonic and emotional tensions which are either released or exploited by the nervous energy of the succeeding fugues. The question is, why when Szigeti and Menuhin have studied these for far longer, do they take the opposite tack? The adagio of the third sonata is a very elusive work, with its obsessively reiterated dotted rhythm, yielding a sense of yearning and striving, which is part and parcel of the austerity of its structure. Fischer plays this very gently, almost tentatively, generating nugatory tension; this is the only movement on these two discs where I utterly failed to understand what musical points she was making. The only plausible reason is that in these opening adagios, she desires to stress communal intimacy, over grand proclamations. This is the antithesis of Szigeti, who consistently makes one aware, more than any other fiddler, that he appreciates these works like the human body, a skeleton over which he arrays all the musculature, this being the harmonic subtexts of the music. Unfortunately, Szigeti's ambition cannot be sustained by his atrophying technical resources. Fischer's playing is definitely not skin deep, but at times there is a Pirandello-like semblance of six Bach characters still in search of their author. Fischer's concluding allegro to the third sonata is glorious, leaving all others in its wake. It goes off like a veritable rocket, a moto perpetuo tour de force.

Consistently, her effortless technique is a joy. Her tone tends towards a mellowness which is never schmaltzy. It is less steely than contemporaries such as Midori and Hahn( whose early teenaged solo Bach I haven't heard ). Her honeyed sound is more reminiscent of Szeryng or Grumiaux, though her dynamic reach is less, at the louder end of the scale. As luck would have it, the courante of the D minor partita was both on her DVD and in the EMI 'classic archive' DVD featuring Grumiaux. Their bowing techniques are different, with Grumiaux's upper right arm appearing fractionally cramped and tucked-in, compared to Fischer's suppleness. Pentatone were right to show her playing, for her bowing is close to biomechanical perfection. She's been impeccably taught.

Finishing on the D minor, again the amplitude and breadth of sound is markedly different with Fischer. Perlman's exuberant multiple chording, the bow slamming on the strings without being allowed to rebound off, makes him the fiddling example of Tarzan in terms of brute strength, though if this is so, Shumsky gives the impression with his turbo triple and quadruple stopping of being Tarzan on Viagra. If these two have relatively solid tempi, their musical textures nonetheless sound busy and full, because of the extra time taken to sound the G and D strings. Where Fischer has the same tempi, her textures sound sparer, and the speeds paradoxically slower. As she doesn't sound the bass notes as long, there's a lot more silence between the grand declamations, for instance, during the initial bars of the chaconne. The opening allemande in her hands is broken into shorter breathed phrases. As alluded to earlier, it has a gentle and intimate delivery, at the expense of setting up a quasi-symphonic argument, as Menuhin and Szigeti do. Fischer's allemande is sensitive and sensual, convincing in its own terms as a self contained work; however, the more purposeful, although severe approaches of Shumsky, Szigeti and Menuhin to this movement make more long term musical sense, as the opening of a majestic partita.
The start of the chaconne has the most unassuming opening I have encountered on disc. Perlman and to a lesser extent Heifetz inhabit the opposite pole, so heroically grand, that they sound overprojected. She takes the same 15:47 over it as Perlman, Menuhin 14:10, Haendel 18 minutes, Szigeti 16. Though Szigeti and Menuhin hence flank her tempi, both instil a more monumental conception to the piece. The work has a tripartite structure, with 15 variations in the minor, followed by 9 in the major, before a remodulation back into the minor. With Szigeti and Menuhin, the critical and deeply affecting variations prior to the modulation into the major, and analogously prior to the reversion into the minor, are prepared with consummate musicianly skill, though Fischer's technique is superior, markedly so over Szigeti. Menuhin's oft professed admiration of Furtwängler's command of musical structure is mirrored by his tempo variations in these sections, where these highlight the development both in harmony and musical rhetoric. In all these works, Fischer when she sets a tempo, deviates sparsely from it. Szigeti does much the same in these sections of the chaconne as Menuhin, though highlighting the points more by elastic distention and compression of the melodic line, which Fischer also generally eschews. Hence in the chaconne, these magical moments, while noted by her, go relatively unremarked, as if she were afraid of out of period sentiment or excess. One wonders about the breadth of Fischer's knowledge of past performers. Has she studied Furtwängler's use of rhythm and texture to underscore the unity of harmonic and dramatic shifts? Apparently she also plays the piano; consequently, has she studied Schnabel in the Beethoven sonatas?

If the above has sounded critical, it is only because the differences to her illustrious predecessors have been underscored. As she quoted Menuhin in her booklet, this made the comparison almost inevitable. One factor which should be applauded, is throughout the set one is aware of the performer's humility and deference to the music, which is very touching. This was less evident in Shumsky, and even less so in Perlman, whose technical command can almost seem brazen and smug. Fischer's technique is fully competitive with his, albeit her relative lack of physical strength precludes his level of decibel production. Fischer's intimate and unprepossessing approach probably has more in common with a baroque violinist, but as I am not a general fan of this, I have no comparisons to make. However, the lighter bowing style of a period performer would probably make their performances brisker compared to the relatively leisurely ones Fischer has recorded. The more one prefers period Bach, without the vinegary textures, the more one will admire Fischer, and especially if one values the spirit of the dance over formal oratory. However, as the most challenging solo Bach had been recorded with musicians in less than the full blush of technique, and in opaque sound, Fischer's performances are still highly recommendable.

Copyright © 2005 Ramesh Nair and SA-CD.net

Review by Oscar July 12, 2005 (16 of 17 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
Among the young violin virtuosos, Julia Fisher appears to me to be one of the outstanding exponents of her generation.
And this disc proves it amply.
Very few violinists of any time would risk a recording such complex works so early in their careers. But here, the gamble pays off. Great playing, no question about impeccable technique, gorgeous tone, and generous phrasing: requisites indespensable for these J.S. Bach works. The pieces sound like new discoveries, such is the spontaneity of the playing.

And the recording is superb. Good ambiance, excellent and detailed violin tone, a most complex instrument to record.
A winner.

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Review by Windsurfer October 26, 2006 (15 of 18 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
We had just come home from Boston for a Saturday night concert in Symphony Hall where Julia Fischer and the Boston Symphony played the Sibelius concerto. I was just about knocked out of my seat by that Sibelius, and considering myself very lucky that young Ms Fischer and 2 of her chamber music partners would be playing not more than 11 miles to the west of here at Union College the following Friday.

I had ordered this recording maybe two weeks earlier when Julia was still only known to me by her Russian Violin Concertos disc. Moreover I was not a huge fan of Unaccompanied Bach for Violin. At that time I still had yet to finish my multi-channel system downstairs and was listening to everything in stereo via a pair of Celestion SL-6si loudspeakers driven by a modest amplifier fed by a Sony DVP 9000 ES.

I put the first of these two discs on and was casually listening while preparing dinner. Then something really nice caught my attention and suddenly I found myself no longer in the kitchen preparing dinner. I was sitting in the living room listening with undivided attention.

A few seconds more of this and I called to my wife: Lynn, you have to come listen to this, this is REALLY extraordinary violin playing. She came in and after a few moments simply said: “This is really gorgeous! - Who is it? '

Ha, said I, whom do you think? Its Julia Fischer!

I have already relayed in our forum how Julia would wind up playing a recital in Schenectady because the cellist had passport problems. That concert was as much a knockout as this album and I repeat to you what I said to my wife:

“You have to hear this, this is really extraordinary violin playing"

and my wife's response:

“This is really gorgeous!”

Because folks, it truly is. I am no Bach scholar, but I listen to this album regularly where previously I used to listen to unaccompanied Bach only once in a blue moon.

Now, thanks to the supremely lovely sounds Julia Fischer makes, I listen to it at least once every other week, sometimes twice in the same week. Instead of silvery, I would say her tone is characterized by a golden aura and that she can and does treat us to a kaleidoscope of violinistic color. The PentaTone recording in stereo seemed all one could ask for until I heard it in multi-channel – that was (is) the ne ultra plus!

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Review by sunnydaler August 25, 2007 (9 of 10 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
Both great and not-so-great players have recorded these works in their own style. Notable recordings of them have been made by Henryk Szeryng, Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, and Nathan Milstein to name a few. But there's no definitive one. There's always a room for improvement and that's one of great things about listening to classical music. In fact, we can say that we are listening to Bach's music thru the vision of interpreters(players).
Many people still love Menuhin's old recording(recorded in 1930s). He doesn't use lubato much and maybe it was thought to be appropriate for playing baroque music in his time but inherently it sounds plain and cold.
Grumiaux's recording sounds mechanical and hurried-up. At first spin I was like "what the..."

my recommandation? It goes to Milstein's 50s recording and this young Deutsch violinist Julia Fischer's.
They both have wonderful tone quality and impeccable technique. We had Milstein in the last century but we have Julia Fischer now. I think there's no alive competant to match her playing. And it is evident in this recording. And it's been recorded wonderfully. Why not have this recording?

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Review by threerandot May 25, 2008 (6 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
At the age of 21, Julia Fischer decided to record these works for solo violin. This is nothing short of a triumph!

I have never been an ardent fan of the music of Bach. I have always favored composers like Debussy, Ravel, Mahler, Sibelius and Wagner much more. This is not to say that Bach's music is not important. Bach is naturally one of the most important composers, especially when it comes to the development of harmony. All six of these works are technically challenging. Julia Fischer proves she is more than up to the task of interpreting and turning these works into living, breathing pieces of music.

Finally, I can say that I don't believe I have ever enjoyed listening to the music of Bach like this. Julia brings out the emotive and passionate qualities of Bach in a way I have never heard any other performer do before. In the past I have heard many recordings of the music of Bach but none approach this one for involving me in the music on an emotional level. A highlight is Julia's ability to sustain the intensity of the Ciconna from the Parita No.2 in D Minor, for the full 16 minutes it takes to perform!

I have always found Bach's music to sound somewhat mechanical at times, but Fischer plays these works with great joy, delight and pathos where needed. She also has incredible control and displays her trademark singing and soaring sound.

Since this is a recording of a solo violin, the recording puts Julia closer to us than in a concerto setting and this helps add to the intimacy of these performances. Julia's violin is spread across the three front channels in surround sound, with the rears providing a nice ambience. The violin comes through with great clarity and immediacy. An excellent recording.

This disc has given me a new appreciation for the music of Bach and I hope Julia can provide more Bach recordings like this one in the future. Highly recommended!

(This review refers to the Multichannel portion of this disc.)

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Review by Amfibius May 31, 2011 (8 of 8 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
I can not get enough of this beautiful and intelligent woman's sensitive playing of Bach. My first exposure to this disc, I was not aware of who the violinist was. The performance was vivid, mature, sensitive, and precise - so I was expecting a much older violinist. It was somewhat of a shock to see that she was so young.

Many violinists her age can not resist the urge to show off their technique - Ilya Gringolts springs to mind. Come to think of it, the same is true of many young pianists who were firebrands when they were young, and their playing matured as they grew older - for example Kissin, Pogorelich, and Horowitz. Julia Fischer has technique in spades, but she does not deploy it on crass showmanship. Instead, her playing sounds effortless and natural, as if it is the way it was meant to be. She never displays any hints of strain, nor does her discipline slip when she is playing slowly. She is already a first rate violinist, and I am sure that if she continues to develop on her present trajectory, history will record her among the greats.

In which case, she deserves to be compared to some of the other titans I have in my collection - Szeryng, Milstein, Heifetz, and Perlman. Without going into a long essay, I will simply say this - I prefer the Fischer. Perlman has a beautiful sound, but he does not sound like Bach. Milstein is too frenetic and dramatic. As for the Szeryng - this has been my favourite up to now. He is austere, intellectual, and really appreciates the architectural quality of this music. In my humble opinion, the greatest Bach musicians are more Bach than they are themselves - Szeryng had this quality, and so did Tureck and Landowska. Notably, Gould did not.

I think that Fischer's interpretation, whilst mature and very good, is not as "Bach" as the Szeryng. She needs to develop a finer sense of counterpoint and a deeper appreciation of the music's architecture. However, she shows much more empathy and humanity than the Szeryng, who is monk-like by comparison.

I was pretty conflicted when I bought this disc, listening to it back to back with the Szeryng countless times trying to make up my mind. I could hardly believe that someone so young, and someone I had never heard of, could have trumped my old favourite - one of the true greats of Bach. The two performances are so different - asking myself who was right and who was wrong, and which performance I prefer and why - took me months and I still don't have an answer as to why I prefer the Fischer.

As for the sound, this Pentatone disc is absolutely first rate (as I have come to expect from them). The studio was free of extraneous reflections and the recorded violin comes across as pure and unadulterated, with every slightest nuance faithfully captured. It is in the class of an audiophile demonstration disc, it is that good.

Sum-up: 5 for performance, 5 for sound. This disc is a "must-have".

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Review by Sauron November 20, 2012 (3 of 4 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
This is the first recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Violin that I could really enjoy. I have heard a lot of performances and recordings, but there was always a point where the musician stood between me and the piece, in the way that he was showing something off or having difficulties or playing with a harsh tone or in bad tune.
The highest respect to Julia Fischer giving this outstanding prove of her abilities so early in her career. It made me really see her as one of my favourite violinists ever.

The Sound is also great and that is so difficult with an instrument such as the violin. It is very balanced, round, no unnatural sharp edges or disturbing frequencies. Also the room in that this was recorded fits very well to the performance. Good Job! Again I repeat, this is the first recording that made me really like to listen to these pieces. Bravo!

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Review by joheirba June 7, 2013 (3 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
This certainly is a beautiful disc. The playing and the sound are perfect (a big thank you by the way to Pentatone for continuing to produce these discs and keep them affordable).

I love most of the discs I own from Julia Fisher (Schubert, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev), but for this disc I find there are still better interpretations.

From what I learnt from different booklets, Bach learned to play the violin from his father at a rather young age. Then, he wrote a part of this music after he came back from a voyage to find his first wife dead and buried. There's no evidence that Bach meant to express his feelings within this music - romanticism still needed to be invented - but I find it hard to believe there should be no influence at all.

In the way the music sounds, I feel as if Julia Fisher played these sonatas and partitas mainly as baroque music without taking too much into account the feelings that might be included. There's no problem with that: these are baroque dances for solo violin, and they should sound as such.

Still I eagerly hope that one day she will come back to these pieces and make them transcend to just that little more that makes Bach's music my favorite.

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