There is, of course, no such thing as a greatest piece of music, any more than there might be a greatest movie, novel, painting or whatever. But we all have our favourites – though mine, it must be said, are constantly changing – and as far as classical music goes, one of my most frequent contenders for the top spot is the celebrated Chaconne that closes Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin. A monumental and magnificent set of variations upon a theme, it has been transcribed for piano (most notably by Busoni and Brahms), organ, cello, guitar, trio and orchestra, but – for me at least – it’s still best performed on a violin, be it baroque or modern. The Chaconne’s melodic richness and harmonic sophistication are such that it never fails to hold me entranced from beginning to end; I am, therefore, always happy to see the second partita performed in concert, and only a couple of months ago managed to catch two very fine but noticeably different renditions by Leila Josefowicz and Christian Tetzlaff.
If memory serves, the first time I caught the Second Partita live was in a recital given some years ago at London’s Wigmore Hall by the German violinist Carolin Widmann. So I was delighted by the recent release on ECM of L’Aurore, her second solo recording. Her impressive first – Reflections, released in 2005 – combined the second and fourth of Eugène Ysaÿe’s six sonatas with more recent pieces by Boulez, Sciarrino and Widmann’s composer-clarinettist-conductor brother Jörg. The new release is a similarly eclectic, intelligent and pleasing assemblage of pieces from different eras, ranging from the twelfth century (two accounts of Hildegard von Bingen’s monophonic Spiritus sanctus vivificans vita) to the start of the twenty-first (George Benjamin’s Three Miniatures for Solo Violin, previously recorded by Tamsin Waley-Cohen on her wonderful Soli album). Ysaÿe makes a welcome return with his fifth sonata (the first movement of which provides the album’s title), while Enescu’s lovely Fantaisie Concertante is also in the mix. Much fine music, then, performed with Widmann’s customary expertise and intelligence, but the highlight, inevitably, is Bach’s second partita, which closes the disc. Her playing throughout is at once lucid and luminous, imbued with both energy and a spiritual serenity, beautifully controlled – she never over-emphasises the dance elements in the suite – yet deeply expressive. Her reading of that extraordinary Chaconne is meticulous and measured – it lasts a minute or more longer than the other versions I possess – but is no less exhilarating or affecting for all that. I suspect I’ll be listening to the disc a lot. (Meanwhile you can check out Widmann in the Partita’s first movement – the Allemande – here.)
While on the subject of Bach, I should perhaps also mention ECM’s excellent series of Prism CDs recorded by the estimable Danish String Quartet. Each of the four discs released so far (there’s one more to come) consists of a Bach fugue, one of Beethoven’s late string quartets – proceeding in order from the 12th – and another quartet which the DSQ feel is somehow related to the relevant Bach and/or Beethoven piece. Prism I gave us Shostakovich’s 15th string quartet, Prism II Schnittke’s 3rd, Prism III Bartók’s 1st, and the recently released Prism IV takes a break from twentieth-century composers by including – after Bach’s Fugue in G minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor – Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor. My musical understanding is insufficient to properly grasp all the various links between the pieces, but the extremely engaging Mendelssohn quartet was composed shortly after the death of Beethoven, whose music he greatly admired, and even I can discern his influence in places, even if the two quartets are quite different. Whatever, this fourth disc is a welcome addition to a brilliant series, in which the DSQ’s superb technical skills are consistently at the service of highly sensitive, highly eloquent interpretation; the playing of the lovely third movement in the Beethoven – his renowned ‘song of thanksgiving’ for having recovered from a serious, potentially fatal illness – is typically rewarding in its clarity of approach and execution. (You can watch the DSQ perform the Heiliger Dankgesang here.) I look forward to the release of the fifth and final disc. Meanwhile, even if my own personal favourites remain the first two discs in the series, all four released so far are well worth checking out.
Photographs of Carolin Widmann by Marco Borggreve and of the Danish String Quartet by Caroline Bittencourt, courtesy of ECM.