Thursday, 1 March 2018

Ning Feng, and Josef Suk, in Bach

When it comes to performances of music of the baroque era, and of the 18th century, I am conscious of often being illogical and somewhat schizophrenic. I love the way Handel's operas and oratorios are played today, and find it difficult to accept the old 20th century performing tradition before the final decades of the century. I deplore race-to-the-finish Bach, and prefer Klemperer or Richter in most of Bach's choral music. I dislike Glenn Gould's recordings of the Goldberg Variations as being too much Gould, not enough Bach, but I like Beatrice Rana's recording of the Goldbergs for the sense of a personal interaction with the music. I like my Brandenburgs played by Adolf Busch, Karl Richter or Otto Klemperer rather than Allegro Molto conducting I Barochisti di Novara.

A friend recently sent me a set of the Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas recorded in 1970 by the great Czech violinist, Josef Suk and, following a highly enthusiastic notice by one reviewer, I bought a set of the same works recorded in late 2016 by the Chinese violinist, Ning Feng. I settled down to listen to both performances, recorded some 45 years apart, with my notebook at the ready; starting with the first sonata, one after another, and ending with the third partita, one after another. From experience, ones reaction to different performances can also depend on mood and circumstances, so I was anxious to compare like with like.

Right from the start, with the first sonata, my ears and my tasting notes made it clear I was dealing with two different things: an excellent vintage red wine, versus an excellent vintage champagne. Suk is calm and relaxed. I have never taken to Bach's violin fugues; Suk ploughs through the first fugue, but I wait for the following Siciliana where I can admire Suk's double stops. When we get to Feng, it's a different world; much more subjective, more rubato and playing around with the rhythm. Feng is terrific in the fugue; his differentiation of the voices makes it sound as if a string quartet is playing the piece. His Siciliana is also excellent, with lovely playing of the parts, and Feng's finale is more exciting than that of Suk.

The first partita is the most difficult of the six unaccompanied works to bring off. It has ten movements (five dances, and five doubles – variations at double speed). Suk plays a really excellent Sarabande, with lovely part playing, but his approach to most movements comes over as a bit ponderous, with the opening Allemanda going on for ever, and the doubles do not fizz. Feng's Sarabande shows him trying a bit too hard; some of Suk's calm and simplicity would not have come amiss. However, in the doubles, Feng really does fizz – the double of the Corrente (marked double presto) sees smoke coming from Feng's bow, much as it did when Antje Weithaas played it on her recording.

With the second sonata, my opinions are becoming clearer. For the fugues, the Chinese is your man, with his “string quartet” approach to the different voices; the Czech sounds a bit effortful here, at times. Suk's gravitas and simplicity pay off in the slow movements where he often sings, compared with Feng who plays. Suk's finale lacks fantasy; his tempi are often measured, whereas Feng sounds more flowing.

By the end of the second partita, with its wonderful and challenging Ciaccona, and with only the third sonata and the less challenging third partita left, my personal pendulum had begun to swing towards Josef Suk and the classical, mid- 20th century style. With Suk you get Bach, the whole Bach, and nothing but Bach. With Ning Feng, you get superb and imaginative violin playing, with highly interesting flights of fancy, but sometimes Johann Sebastian gets lost in the violinistic jamboree and you find yourself admiring Mr Feng rather than Herr Bach.

It is noticeable when it comes to the two great Russian violinists of the last century, David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan, neither really tackled the Bach unaccompanied works on record (though Kogan did record a couple of them). Bach's unaccompanied violin works demand a certain style of playing and a certain sound. Of the violinists around the middle of the last century, Milstein, Grumiaux – and now Suk – are well worth listening to. Heifetz, in a place all by himself, is also well worth listening to. Of the modern school, I like Alina Ibragimova, Antje Weithaas – and now Ning Feng. All bring fantasy, technique and colour to these six works. Those looking for just one set by one violinist are going to be disappointed. For my desert island choice, I am going to have Heifetz, Grumiaux, Suk, Ibragimova, Weithaas ... and Feng. I like good red Burgundy. And I also like good vintage champagne.

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