I’ve been fishing in Twentieth-century five-★ waters of late, so let’s cast our eyes back on music written by dead guys. There have been a few classical works that I’ve heard one artist play, then never bothered to take the time to listen to anyone else’s take. For example, Gidon Kremer’s 1980 recording of the Violin Sonatas and Partitas by J.S. Bach. This might be a tough sell: two hours of music containing no notes much below middle C, and no more than two notes ever played at the same time. And Kremer is all about Truth not Beauty, which is to say he doesn’t sugar-coat Bach’s rough edges. But I think that truth is beauty, and I think that this music has so much of both that you really ought to sit down sometime and listen to all of it. Well, and it sounds good. (“5★♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)

The Context · I’ve written plenty about J.S. Bach, especially here and here. I’ve written about Kremer. And this whole space is about truth.

Gidon Kremer

This image of Gidon Kremer is copyright Stefan Bremer, from here.

The Music · I just don’t know what to say. Listen to the first few seconds, and you’ll know right away whether this is going to become an permanent part of your mental landscape, or whether it’s just a screechy fiddle playing way too many notes that don’t seem to go anywhere.

Page from BWV1001

I’d it it to my personal list of things to be considered in evidence as to why Homo Sapiens should be considered, on balance, a Good Thing for the universe to include.

If there’s a Greatest Hit in here, it’s the Preludio from Partita 3, BWV 1006; which has been quoted and re-used enough times to enter the racial memory. I don’t think it’s the best track. I’d tell you what I do think is the best but that’d be irrelevant, because every time I put this CD on I end up listening to both disks, end-to-end. It’s great-in-the-whole, great enough that singling out one part or another would be irrelevant.

The 1980 Gidon Kremer recording of Bach solo works

Sampling It · As Wikipedia notes, there are a whole lot of recordings, by basically every violinist you’ve ever heard of. I’ve listened to a couple of others but none have won my heart away from Kremer’s 1980 take; I’ve always thought the sound had a bit too much echo, but still, there’s very little between you and the fiddle, which is as it should be. Two things should be noted: this music leaves so much room for the interpreter’s soul that it would be really unsurprising if you liked it, but preferred another recording. Second, in researching this article I discovered that Kremer took another run at the material in 2002, on ECM New Series 1926 (more discussion here). Since ECM is one of my favorite music shops, I think I’m just gonna have to pick that one up too.

You can listen to samples of both at Amazon. This isn’t about downloading, it’s about buying shiny silver round things and listening to them late at night with the lights out.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Steve Molitor (Aug 27 2007, at 11:18)

Great piece -- minor nit: I think you meant to say 'no notes below the G below middle C'. The G below middle C is the lowest note on a violin, and in fact if you look at the sheet music that you link to, the lowest note of the first G minor 'chord' (played as an arpeggio) of the piece is in fact the G below middle C.



From: Wayne Kovsky (Aug 27 2007, at 12:53)

An excellent recommendation, of both the music and the performer. I would like to additionally recommend Paul Galbraith's transcription for classical guitar: "Paul Galbraith, Bach: The Six Sonatas and Partitas". You can find it at Amazon, with samples of the first 16 of 32 tracks from this two-CD set.

Listening to Galbraith's version ("late at night with the lights out" as you suggest), I discover new things in the music each time, and that leads me to similar discoveries the next time I listen to it played on the violin.


From: David Magda (Aug 27 2007, at 13:12)

Whenever I'm looking at getting a CD of a classical work I usually check out BBC's "CD Review" Build a Library site for their recommendation(s). You can either do a search for particular artists and works, or download a list of recommendations by year.

For this work they recommend Rachel Podger on the Channel Classics.

While music is a bit personal, and tends to vary with taste, I've found the recommendations from "CD Review" to be usually quite good.


From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Aug 29 2007, at 13:24)

Bach is fantastic. My mother considered the 6 Brandenburg Concertos her desert island music. But then she was telling me of her likes in what was available in the 50s and early 60s. It was limited. We all know that Bach walked 200 miles to listen to the Danish born Buxtehude play a church organ. Now his music has been recorded and even played live recently in Vancouver. Many of the baroque musicians in Vancouver are shifting their likes and allegiance from 18th century composers to those of the so called "Fantastic" 17th. One of them in particular is the Italian Pandolfi (not much is known about him). His music and much of the music of the fantastic period seemed to have no boundaries or rules. By mid 18th century "rules" were in place. But still if you listen to Vivaldi's cello sonatas they almost sound like contemporary music in their freshness and inventiveness.

Mr. Bray, stop buying musical CDs and start going to local concerts of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra. Your effort will be soundly rewarded. We have had this orchestra since 1992 and only very recenly was New York City able to boast to have an equivalent treasure.



From: James Holderness (Aug 30 2007, at 07:11)

FYI, in your feed the image of the Kremer album cover is a jpg (which doesn't exist) rather than a png. I'm curious how something like that happened.


From: Tim Bray (Aug 30 2007, at 08:55)

James: ouch. There's special processing for those class="inline" images, and something obviously went sideways. Noted.


From: bko (Sep 03 2007, at 10:56)

Thanks for your music recommendation Tim.

I had never heard the partitas all the way through and snagged a copy based on yr recommendation. They're wonderful. i think I might like them even better than the cello suites!

I ended up getting the Henryk Szeryng recording, but will eventually try the Kremer version as well.

Speaking of Bach recordings, has anyone seen the reviews of the new recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations by Simone Dinnerstein? I've never heard of her but she got written up in the NYT this past week, has a 2 min clip on youtube, and amazingly her CD is now ranked 28th on amazon for all music--surrounded by nora jones, lyle lovett, Alison Krauss, and soundtracks

to wicked, hairspray, and high school musical. On itunes, it's ranked 2d best selling classical. For a musician who is (was?) not even famous. That's pretty amazing. In a pre-web world, I wonder how long it might have taken to build similar buzz.



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