Site review by ramesh May 4, 2005
|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.