If you recall, this June I reviewed the second of the recordings by Hélène Schmitt of Bach's solo sonatas and partitas for violin. Schmitt recorded the works in Paris and this first volume contains: * BWV 1001 * BWV 1002 * BWV 1004 Of my least favorite of Bach's sonatas and partitas is the first partita, included on this recording. Probably my favorite is the 5-movement, second partita, featuring the celebrated Ciaccona. The thing I first pointed out about the second volume was the role breathing had in Schmitt's performance. It's back to visit us in the first volume, too.
The first thing you hear, especially if you’re listening with headphones, is not Schmitt’s violin. It’s her breathing. This should be no mistake, I’ve read about her use of breath and breathing to inform her bowing and phrasing. It’s also a very subtle reminder of the humanistic aspect of performance of this music. It’s one person, a million images, and that alone is a projection platform for a menagerie of human emotional gestures. I point it out, because it may be of importance to some listeners, to know, for instance, that the violinist is a heavy breather. It could be far worse; she doesn't sing like Gould or Jarrett (in his jazz performances), but with good headphones, or a good set of speakers with the volume turned up to notice details, you'll hear Schmitt breathing. What's most interesting in this release is the audible "intake" sound of breath. If one movement had the most extrovert example, it would be BWV 1004.5. There it is, this breathing that is wrapped around the otherwise gorgeous sound of her Camillo Camilli violin, in baroque orientation. It's a luscious sound; dark and rich, but even, too throughout the entire gamut. It's an instrument with body. And when pressed hard, it really sings, and the Bon Secours space in which she has recorded, is deliciously reverbrant. The close miking grabs this gorgeous sound, but doesn't let the beautiful "echo" ruin the recording. It's well done. And there, during the most athletic portions of the music, during that exquisite Ciaccona is hits you… "What was that?" It was her breathing. And just a few times, she sounds like she's hurting, or at least you imagine her sweating. You may be thinking this is all a set up to let folks down lightly that this is a bad release. Not at all. I am not saying a "breath" track should include every soloist, but I don't find it distracting. I find it adds a human touch to otherwise superhuman music. It reminds me there is a real person behind the bowing and the music. And it reminds me why her performance is definitely different from most: she is using the "breath" of a phrase to inform her playing. And it's sublime. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy so many recordings of Bach's solo sonatas and partitas. My first recording was by Itzhak Perlman, which now I feel is just a little too polished. On modern violin, I much prefer the ECM New Series recording by Gidon Kremer. But from the baroque world, we've been treated to Rachael Podger, John Holloway, Monica Huggett, Amandine Beyer, Viktoria Mullova, and Elizabeth Wallfisch. Wallfisch's recording on hyperion dyad was remarkable to me because it felt… organic. I don't think it was a top-flight recording, but I appreciated the fact upon hearing it that it wasn't "perfect," that a real person was behind the veil of the recording. Hélène Schmitt brings that quality too, but with a far stronger, more assured performance, plus a better recording and a better-sounding baroque instrument. Take the Presto double from BWV 1002. Most violinists with decent technique just whip this one off at a great pace, much to many listener's delight. It's presto, after all, and it's fun to hear all those notes go by so quickly. Here Schmitt takes a different approach, chopping it all up in smaller chunks, and taking the whole thing at a slightly different pace. It reminded me of the approach Huggett employed with phrasing, which I was not very pleased with. Schmitt does okay with it here; I only wish her double of the Bourrée that concludes the work was faster. You might think that she just doesn't like fast Bach. But the Corrente of BWV 1004 is plenty fast. It's not her technique, but her concept of phrase. It gives some of the movements a new pulse that may surprise you. I thought it was a pleasant collection of surprises. This is quickly become, along with volume 2, my favorite solo Bach on violin. Most vigorously recommended.