Sonata in A minor for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV1003
Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano
Midori (violin) & Robert McDonald (piano)
Recorded 22-23 August 2005 (Bach) and September 1999 (Bartók) at Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: April 2008
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
Duration: 59 minutes
Bach and Bartók share this disc as innovators in the violin’s literature – Bach for stretching the instrument’s capabilities in an unaccompanied setting, Bartók for his striking move to the boundaries of tonality.
In what makes an effective recital programme the Bach is placed first, and receives an affectionate performance from Midori, with a consistently beautiful tone. Although conceived on the ‘sonata da chiesa’ model established by the Italians, Bach amended the form to make the second of the four movements a Fugue. Through Midori this is thoroughly convincing and tautly argued, the subject naturally paced and the subsequent entries clear and precise. The recorded sound is just right to give the performance the necessary clarity and depth.
Most affecting of the four movements is the Andante, where despite a slow pace the violinist keeps a continuous rhythmic lilt, at the same time bringing a sense of overall calm. This provides the ideal up-beat into the echo effects of the second Allegro, wonderfully unforced in their realisation.
The Bartók, by nature, is a more demanding proposition for the listener. Written almost exactly two hundred years after the Bach, it is in fact the composer’s fourth sonata for violin and piano, and the first mature example. Of the composer’s chamber music it is perhaps the most challenging, a big structure full of tense, border-line tonal music that doesn’t find a full release until the big-boned third movement Allegro.
Midori and pianist Robert McDonald capture the deep unease felt within the first movement, though here the recorded piano sound is exposed to be rather mottled. This is a shame, for the two players have a keen chemistry, particularly in the delicate moments of the Adagio where a brief sense of calm can be felt, before a restless passage of violin arpeggios.
The brooding manner in which the second movement ends finds a release of sorts in the finale, McDonald’s brittle lower-register phrases lighting the touch paper for a movement that contains real cut and thrust. Midori’s power and technical mastery cannot be faulted, while McDonald becomes the rhythmic lynchpin. Bartók’s use of folk-inflected material is especially evident in this movement, with the metre occasionally given an authentic ‘drag’ by McDonald.
Difficult listening it may be, but in this intense performance Midori and McDonald take the challenge head-on. An interesting sequel to this would perhaps be Bartók’s Solo Violin Sonata paired with some accompanied Bach, but since the Bartók was recorded some eight years ago that seems unlikely. Whether or not that appears, this present release is fine and stimulating.