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Hyperion Records

CDA67691/2 - Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin
Photograph by Sussie Ahlburg.

Recording details: February 2009
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: October 2009
Total duration: 138 minutes 8 seconds


'Ibragimova reveals herself to be an exquisite interpreter of solo Bach … her Bach comes as something of a revelation. The finesse we've previously admired in her playing is here combined with thoughtful stylistic awareness and a distinctive, individual approach … all her stylishness and technical refinement is at the service of an ingrained understanding of the music' (Gramophone)

'She's supremely alert to the idiomatic nuances of each dance … her technical accomplishment is awesome. The D minor Giga scampers along as if mindful of the transcendent monumentality of the Ciaccona lurking around the corner—and when it arrives, Ibragimova tip-toes and soars with aplomb' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Ibragimova comes of age with this superb set … this is a violinist of interpretative maturity and thrilling spark' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Alina Ibragimova is a player of great musical imagination and intelligence and this—combined with superb technique—produces some exceptional results in her new recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin … this set reveals a Bach player of real stature … warmly recommended' (International Record Review)

'Alina Ibragimova's previous discs for Hyperion have all been of 20th-century repertoire … all in their different ways were first rate, but none of them gave any inkling of just how startlingly good Ibragimova's solo Bach recordings might be. This is an absolutely compelling set of performances, the kind that have you on the edge of your seat wondering at the freshness of it all and what she might do next. Every phrase in these familiar works seems newly minted, every bar totally alive' (The Guardian)

'Young, excellent and serious, this 24-year old violinist plays with a maturity far beyond her years. In this two-CD set she's right inside the music, whether Bach calls for roaring fire or the tenderest melancholy' (The Times)

'One baulks at reducing this sublime discourse to adjectives … these solo structures are thin yet monumental, linear yet multilayered, technically specialised yet altogether soul-rending, and she capitalises on every paradox. More simply, her sound is seductive, her virtuosity bracing and every movement a victory … a true enshrining of the violin's soul' (The Sunday Times)

'Admirable agility, clean articulation and perfectly true intonation, and everywhere her technique is impressive … she continually looks to the beauty of the music … the sound quality is fabulous' (The Strad)

'Ibragimova's combination of intelligence and intuition, vulnerability and steel on display in this new set will surely prove revelatory … she makes familiar works sound both spontaneously conceived and inevitable' (The New York Times)

Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin
Adagio  [4'32]
Fuga: Allegro  [5'04]
Siciliana  [3'29]
Presto  [3'18]
Allemanda  [5'11]
Double  [2'27]
Corrente  [3'27]
Double  [3'18]
Sarabande  [3'36]
Double  [3'34]
Tempo di borea  [3'18]
Double  [3'08]
Grave  [4'34]
Fuga  [7'46]
Andante  [5'34]
Allegro  [5'28]
Allemanda  [5'17]
Corrente  [2'26]
Sarabanda  [4'19]
Giga  [3'26]
Ciaccona  [14'10]
Adagio  [4'11]
Fuga  [10'39]
Largo  [3'20]
Allegro assai  [4'19]
Preludio  [3'14]
Loure  [4'10]
Bourrée  [1'16]
Gigue  [1'40]

‘One player, one instrument, one composer: Bach’s unaccompanied violin music has always been the greatest for any player, young or old. Alina Ibragimova, only 23, is already its equal’ (The Guardian)

‘Alina Ibragimova began to play unaccompanied Bach on the violin, and the hush became silence. This was spontaneous, the first sense that something new could happen’ (The Independent)

The dazzling young virtuoso Alina Ibragimova has enthralled audiences for years with her live Bach performances. Critics have acclaimed her faultless intonation, achingly beautiful tone, superlative technique and a musical wisdom far beyond her years. Now, in this important new recording of Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin, Ibragimova brings all these qualities and more to create an interpretation that is both excitingly original and profoundly humble. This is music of unfathomable subtlety, astounding virtuosity and great expressive and architectural beauty.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Bach’s music for unaccompanied violin was not the first of its kind, but rather the high water mark of a tradition which had existed in Germany since the middle of the seventeenth century. Bach’s predecessors in the field include Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644–1704), Johann Jakob Walther (c1650–1717), and Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656–1705). These were celebrated virtuosi and among the leading German violinists of their day, whose technique and deep knowledge of the instrument for which they were writing enabled them to extend its expressive range. Indeed, Biber and Walther were among the most daring innovators in Austria and Germany, Biber exploring the technical and expressive possibilities of ‘scordatura’, in which one or more strings of the violin are retuned, Walther following in the path laid by Italian composers like Biagio Marini (1587–1663) and Carlo Farina (c1600–c1640) who explored effects imitative of other musical instruments and of birds and animals. Why Bach, foremost a keyboard virtuoso, though admittedly at least a competent violinist and viola player, should have been attracted to such an extent by the unaccompanied violin is not entirely clear.

During his very brief employment in 1703 as musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst at Weimar, Bach would have encountered von Westhoff, who had been appointed chamber musician and teacher both of French and Italian languages at the same court four years earlier. Westhoff’s Suite pour le violon seul sans basse had been published in 1683, and a more substantial collection of solo violin Partitas had been printed in Dresden in 1696. We may easily imagine that Bach would have seen at least some of this music and been impressed by the imaginative counterpoint on display, above all in the Partitas. Perhaps alternatively, or in addition, Bach’s Dresden contemporary Johann Georg Pisendel (1687–1755)—pupil and friend of Vivaldi (the Venetian composer dedicated no fewer than five violin sonatas and six violin concertos to him), leader of the celebrated Dresden court orchestra and noted violin virtuoso—may have provided him with the impetus to write his supremely challenging music for unaccompanied violin. Pisendel’s Sonata in A minor for solo violin may date from about the time of his Italian trip in 1716. Pisendel certainly knew Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin since they were included in a manuscript belonging to him, but which, sadly, was destroyed during World War Two. Pisendel, furthermore, seems to have been in contact with Bach during the first two decades of the eighteenth century. Though unable to reach the expressive heights achieved by Bach, Pisendel nevertheless proves himself an accomplished technician well able to disclose his own sophisticated poetic fantasy. Yet again, though, we might simply recognize in Bach’s legacy of music for unaccompanied violin his aim to explore and document as many different aspects of musical form as possible.

The Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato Libro Primo—the Libro Secondo probably would have been the six Suites for unaccompanied cello—as Bach described his Sonatas and Partitas on the title page, are preserved in a beautifully written autograph manuscript completed at Cöthen and dated 1720. In it, each of three Sonatas is followed by a Partita; the Sonatas follow the Italian ‘da chiesa’ slow–fast–slow–fast pattern, ostensibly avoiding dance movements, while the Partitas, as their name implies, are dance suites. As in Corelli’s music, though, lines of demarcation are often blurred, rhythmic and ornamental characteristics of one type penetrating the other. A more rigid distinction between the two, however, is provided by key signatures for, whereas the Partitas contain movements all of which are in the same key, the Sonatas employ two keys, one for the outer movements and the fugal second movement and another for the slow third movements.

Bach’s music for solo violin attains, both technically and expressively, the highest position on the Parnassian slopes, far outstripping the achievements of the composers already mentioned. The merit of this music was recognized probably in Bach’s lifetime, as is attested in a letter from his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, to his father’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in 1774: ‘He [Bach] understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments. This is evidenced by his solos for the violin and for the violoncello without bass. One of the greatest violinists once told me that he had seen nothing more perfect for learning to be a good violinist, and could suggest nothing better to anyone eager to learn, than the said violin solos without bass.’ Bach must have had in mind a violinist of outstanding ability but, though we shall probably never know his identity, Pisendel, Joseph Spiess, principal Cammermusicus at Prince Leopold’s court at Cöthen, and Jean-Baptiste Volumier, who had been appointed Konzertmeister to the Dresden court in 1709, have all been suggested as possible recipients. Several copies of the music derive from Bach’s autograph, their variant details providing us with plenty of food for thought. The Sonatas and Partitas were first published in 1802 since when their idiomatic and exuberant polyphony have challenged and fascinated performers, composers and commentators alike.

Bach’s set of unaccompanied violin music begins with the Sonata in G minor (BWV1001). Its richly ornamented opening Adagio is both harmonically and expressively wide ranging, taking us far from the home key in the first half of the movement. The Fuga which follows is concisely argued, its densely worked theme almost ever present and discernible throughout. It was later transcribed, perhaps by Bach, for solo organ and for lute solo. The Siciliana, in which three voices are sustained, has something of the character of a trio sonata movement. This technically demanding piece contains intriguing implication and ambiguity for the listener. The Sonata concludes with a lively Presto whose sixteenth-note passagework, chordal figurations and technical virtuosity lend brilliance to its character.

The Partita in B minor (BWV1002) is outwardly, perhaps, the most straightforward and expressively undemonstrative of the three. It consists of four classical suite movements, though each has its own Double, or variation. The work begins with an Allemanda whose character is defined by angular, even seemingly awkward contours. By comparison, its Double is uncomplicated, yet here as throughout the suite Bach’s writing appears tinged with an underlying expressive melancholy. Following a brisker Corrente and its Double, marked Presto, is the Sarabande and Double, whose graceful gestures and noble eloquence establish its position as a focal point of the suite. The concluding Tempo di borea, or Bourrée, and its Double make effective use of sequences to extend phrases and to generate energy.

The third work in Bach’s collection is the Sonata in A minor (BWV1003). In its opening Grave, a Largo to all intents and purposes, Bach makes extensive use of multiple stopping to provide harmonic support to the melodic line. As in the slow movement of the G minor Sonata, the music contains structural ambiguities for performer and listener alike, providing players with a variety of interpretative possibilities. The Fuga which follows presents a terse subject which, however, Bach develops in a manner altogether more complex than the equivalent movement in the G minor work. Here he achieves a wonderful expressive variety, developing the fugal material with contrasting passages of semiquavers, and multiple stopping to create two or three independent parts. The melodic line of the lyrical Andante is strongly differentiated from the underlying harmonic support, presenting something of a challenge to the performer who must preserve the distinction between the two elements. This melodically appealing movement leads to an Allegro finale, in binary form, in which Bach dispenses with multiple stopping in favour of a single melodic line containing a profusion of broken chords. The Sonata was later transcribed, perhaps by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, as a piece for harpsichord solo (BWV964).

The Partita No 2 in D minor (BWV1004) is the best known of Bach’s six works for unaccompanied violin on account of its brilliantly sustained, imaginatively varied and architecturally magnificent Ciaccona. Like the B minor Partita, it begins with an Allemanda which on first acquaintance may seem a little lacking in geniality. This movement, along with the Corrente which follows it and the subsequent Giga, progresses in a single continuous melodic line, in which harmony provided by multiple stopping is almost entirely absent. The Sarabanda, by contrast, with its richly chordal passages gives the impression, to some extent illusory, of greater complexity. The mighty concluding Ciaccona, a 257-bar ‘morceau célèbre’ and veritable Goliath of the violin repertory, is built on a noble and declamatory theme upon which Bach develops sixty-four continuous variations, exploring a dazzlingly intricate range of harmonic possibilities. This is a movement of unfathomable subtlety, astounding virtuosity and great expressive and architectural beauty. Bach seems to have set himself incalculable challenges, sustaining his Chaconne with a major-key section, rhythmic diversity and a kaleidoscope of technical devices both pushing the boundaries of, and summarizing, we might say, the baroque violinist’s art.

The third and last of the Sonatas (BWV1005) is in the key of C major and begins with an elegiacally expressive Adagio whose writing embraces one-part to four-part texture. It leads to an immense, multiple-layered Fuga, 354 bars in length, whose single subject derives from the Pentecostal antiphon ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’, from which the chorale melody ‘Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott’ also derives. The scale of the movement, its contrapuntal density, the sustained ingenuity of the writing and its intimidating technical requirements, make it a daunting challenge to the performer. As such it may be regarded as a companion piece to the D minor Ciaccona. The lyrical and serene melody of the third movement Largo, in F major, provides both expressive contrast and necessary relief from the imposing, concentrated and technically challenging content of the Fuga which preceded it. The C major Sonata concludes with a spirited and brilliantly coloured Allegro assai in which Bach, once more, leads the performer and his instrument towards the limits of possibility.

The Partita in E major (BWV1006) is, perhaps the most readily accessible of the six works for unaccompanied violin. It begins with a dashing, bravura Preludio whose almost unbroken pattern of semiquavers, together with passages of ‘bariolage’ and its bright key of E major, imbue the piece with radiance and anticipatory excitement. Bach himself must have thought especially well of this movement since, nine years later, in 1729, he transcribed the violin part for organ, adding parts for strings, oboes and basso continuo to create a sinfonia for a wedding cantata (BWV120a). Two years later, he turned to the piece again, further expanding the orchestration to include trumpets and drums, this time to provide an introduction to a cantata (BWV29) for the installation of the Leipzig city council in 1731. In the remaining movements Bach resisted the conventional sequence of dances belonging to the classical suite, confining himself to ‘galanteries’. After a Loure, a movement of gigue-like character but with a more intricate rhythm, follows a catchy Gavotte en rondeau. The first of two Menuets yields an air of courtly refinement while the second, with its tied ‘drone’ minims is of a more pastoral character. The syncopated Bourrée derives engaging effects from Bach’s carefully marked dynamic contrasts, while an airy, sprightly Gigue brings the Partita to a warmly expressive and convivial conclusion.

Nicholas Anderson © 2009

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