I hope you will forgive me for the almost mythical length in the title of this post. Equally I hope you will forgive this AOTM not being pop. At the end of the month, I reflect on which album has moved me the most. In February, it is this one. There is no doubt in my mind that what Gideon Kremer and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (herein the Academy) have achieved is nothing short of miraculous. This review will be split into three sections because I believe each piece deserves to be considered in its own light.
The Two Violin Concertos
Out of Bach’s vast body of work, only two Violin Concertos survive (BWV 1041-1042). Both are included here and played so beautifully by Gideon Kremer and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The first movement is all excitement and ebullience. Bach’s precision is at its most foreboding in the second movement of the first concerto, for me.
This second is the first evidence in this album that where we hear the violin’s voice. To me it speaks of sorrow, anger and impatience, with the central motif returning almost hauntingly towards the end of the movement. The final movement returns to a faster pace. The harpsichord is demanding of one’s attention from the outset. It is important we do not underestimate its power in all three pieces here.
The finale is described as ‘rolling and jolly’. Bach uses a technique for the violin soloist known as bariolage, “a special effect in violin playing obtained by playing in rapid alternation upon open and stopped strings” Meriam Webster. Pay attention near the end of the final movement, it is quite astonishing and almost overwhelming.
Most of these concerti date from Bach’s so-called Cöthen period from 1718-1723, a happy, productive time for Bach. His new employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen seemed to be fond of the latest fad, the Italian-style Concerto, as typified by Vivaldi. The older German version had four movements, but Bach quickly adopted the Italian three-movement fast-slow-fast structure, the form that propelled it into the Classical period. Good Music Guide
The second Violin Concerto opens with a simple melody which lures one into a false sense of security, following by a joyful burst of beautifully harmonised violins and harpsichord. This beautifully repeated melody is repeated and added to throughout the first movement building up to a really remarkable crescendo towards the end. Again, watch out for the importance of the harpsichord and the haunting use of double bass. Kremer plays with such magnificent vigour, bringing bursts of life into Bach’s composition.
The second movement is as compelling as it is haunting. The bassline is simple and repetitive but it underpins and lends support to the soloist and harpsichord. This is a crystal clear example of Bach’s ability to give voice to his instruments and create emotion through this voice. Listen to the second movement and ask yourself, what is Bach telling me? What was he thinking when he composed this? What was he trying to convey? I hear sorrow, passion and hope. Not to mention how impossibly beautiful this movement is. I find myself ready to shed tears at multiple points when listening to Bach’s compositions.
The final movement is once again a return to faster pacing. the second violin is imposing here, adding gusto the first violin, which leads the ensemble marvellously. This movement is an uplifting finale to a moving concerto.
The opening Allegro of the E major concerto is Bach at his most sunny and carefree. Podger and company exude joy, although they are occasionally a touch frantic: uplifting though their performance is, they never quite relax into the mellow composure this music needs. More effective is the soulful Adagio, contrasting dark intensity with sublime moments of golden light emerging from brooding clouds, and an ebullient finale. BBC Music
The Double Violin Concerto BWV 1043
This for me is the apex of classical music. The Double Violin Concerto is unquestionably the best piece on this album and perhaps of all time. If there were a classification system for masterpieces, this would surely sit near the top. Split into three movements; Vivace, Largo and Allegro, Bach masterfully conveys the violins’ unique voices speaking to each other and to us. A world of emotion is unveiled and conveyed so beautifully that I am reduced to tears every time I hear it.
This first movement is enthralling form the beginning. Mathematically perfect, this movement combines the two violins and harpsichord to present an unstoppable onslaught of cohesion and remarkable beauty.
Opening with a Bachian fugue, each violin answering the other, rapidly alternating the melodic line, carrying different tunes yet so closely intertwined as to be inseparable, their combined voices miraculously greater than the sum of their parts. Good Music Guide
The Largo movement is sublime beyond description. this is uniquely illustrative of the fact Bach invented harmonisation for instruments. Never before had this level of communication occurred between instruments. Listening as I write, it is almost as though the two violins are speaking to one another in the style of a vocal Aria. Listen to the way it builds and falls with such keenly felt emotion. It is impossible for one not to be moved by this. The Largo is the pivotal movement in this concerto, providing . This movement is evocative, tender and deeply human.
As though to shake us back to life after being emotionally pulverised by the Largo, Bach fills the third movement with a powerful recurring motif and solid recurring bassline. The insistence of each instrument to be heard is distinctively felt here. It washes over you in all its magnificence, all its mathematical perfection and all its impossibly complexity. The Allegro is almost a great architectural work, crowning the top of an already sound and extensive structure founded by the previous two movements. Kremer plays at his finest here and does not disappoint. I am agog that a piece of this level and concentration of beauty even exists. We are truly blessed to have access to this piece of music and, in addition, this extremely fine recording.
Partitas are suites for solo instruments or chamber ensembles. They are unaccompanied. Here, Bach splits the Partita No.2 for Solo Violin into five parts, the Allemande, Corrente, Sarabande, Giga and Ciaccone.
Kremer faces the music nakedly and directly, without recourse to cohorts, gimmicks, clever arrangements, or anything other than the notes on the page. All Music
Kremer is left to play on his own here and delivers some of the most felt and emotional playing I have heard. These Partitas are complex to play and a challenge for any soloist. My personal favourite is the Giga. I believe the repetitive motif allows us to focus on the Partita as a whole and elicit from it a deep sense of humanity. The melody is remarkable, the recurring motif is intricate and the emotion is conveyed clearly and powerfully. It is no surprise that these partitas have become the go to for any violinist’s repertoire.
Kremer’s tone and expression are chimerical, unpredictable, and sometimes rawly emphasized, and it is sometimes hard to tell if he has deliberately marked out all his dynamics and bowings — as if parsing all those running sixteenth notes into motives and cells — or if he has merely left such decisions to the moment’s inspiration and spontaneously poured himself out in wave after wave of short, hiccuping phrases and exaggerated gestures. Ibidum.
Overall, this album completely staggered me. Beforehand I had known of classical music as an aide to revision and not truly appreciated its merit. It is thanks largely to St Nick and Louise that I have shed my ignorance. I was drawn to Brahms before truly hearing Bach and the genius he conveyed. I think Bach is now firmly my favourite. Nothing will compare to the Concerto for Double Violin. All of human sentiment is contained within and it is impossibly beautiful. The Largo is utterly sublime and I think will remain my favourite movement of classical music for some years to come. St Nick is right to say listening to Bach is a humbling experience and re-contextualises the world of classical music. He was the first to bring instrumental harmonisation to European classical music, previously only considered for vocal music. He was the first to give instruments a voice and make it heard. It is right that Bach is called the founder of modern classical music. I am in awe of Bach’s genius. There was no way that this album wouldn’t be AOTM.