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Listening Post: Bach’s Complete Solo Violin music and Shostakovich’s Complete String Quartets

Bach, “Testament – Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin performed by Rachel Barton Pine (Avie, two discs).

It was 10 days ago that the world could have celebrated one of the great birth anniversaries in the history of Western civilization – the 330th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, to be exact. In observance of the occasion this year, 41-year-old violinist Rachel Barton Pine – the only American ever to be a Gold Medalist in Leipzig’s Bach International Violin Competition (in 1992 when she was all of 17 years old) – is releasing a complete set of one of the two great Bach monuments of music for solo string instruments. Specifically, Pine is giving us the complete Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. Very much like that other instrumental monument for solo string performance – Bach’s magnificent Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello – the complete set of Sonatas and Partitas can turn out to convey very individual abilities indeed. In the case of say, Roman Totenberg, you’d hear an obscure but magnificent set distinguished by the singular grandeur of the violinist’s bowing technique. What you hear with Pine is the exact opposite of Totenberg i.e. a far more businesslike approach to movements at slower tempo and sensational articulation and power in the faster tempo pieces. All in all, a very fine set indeed of the solo violin Sonatas and Partitas. Three and a half stars.

– Jeff Simon

Shostakovich, The Complete String Quartets by Quatuor Danel (Alpha Classics, Five Discs.)

What listeners should have from a box that gives you, complete, one of the key collections in all of 20th century repertoire are two utterly indispensable things: great performances of the music by the ensemble coupled with great disc notes in the accompanying booklet. Anything less than the two together would make up for a collection that is lacking. That is by no means the case here. The notes, by writers Frans C. Lemaire and David Fanning, are especially superb. What was once a Soviet reluctance to tackle a form of classical music that carried “the stigma of bourgeois eilitism,” gave way in the 1930s – after Shostakovich’s low point in 1936 – to a resurgent interest in the more personal utterances of the string quartet. In explicating the early work, David Fanning is the kind of writer who will write “Shostakovich was by nature as much as by force of circumstances, incapable of sustaining a positive frame of mind for very long.” The cycle of 15 Shostakovich String Quartets grew into one of the 20th century’s greatest collected achievements in the form outside the extraordinary six quartets of Bela Bartok. In many ways, the Shostakovich 15 are more problematic which is what makes a sustained performance of these that is this good something unusual and special. Each of its five discs contains three works from different periods. As lacking as that might be in the kind of continuity that would be ideal for traversing this complete collection, it makes for a box that, along with its other virtues, adds convenience, too. Rating: Three stars.

– Jeff Simon

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