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Fanfare Magazine: 39:5 (05-06/2016) 
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Reviewer: Robert Maxham


Midori’s performance of Bach’s Solo Sonatas and Partitas, despite the reverberant ambiance of the Klaus von Bismarck-Saal in Cologne (recorded there on August 13–17, 2013), will occasionally sound shrill to some listeners. Her notes relate that she’d spent 30 years of her career exploring these pieces when she finally set out to record them, and the release unmistakably reflects that exploration. In the First Sonata, she allows cadential notes to decay slowly and majestically; and, despite pressing forward in the fugue, she never allows it to degenerate into a mere contrapuntal exercise. The third movement proceeds smartly in her reading, though with ample nuance. Her reading of the finale accommodates kaleidoscopic rhythmic and timbral effects in which most listeners should take delight. In the First Partita’s dances, she achieves a generally similar effect, particularly in her nuanced exploration of the shimmering Corrente and its flashing Presto double. She adds a roulade here and there in the Sarabande and its double (and elsewhere, as well); but the principal virtue of these performances seems to lie less in occasional individual moments than in the sum of their effects and the general flexibility of her approach. The Tempo di Borea serves as another showcase for her to make these often played and well-known themes her own without lapsing into mannerisms.

The Second Sonata’s Grave serves as a relaxed, though probing, meditation. Despite the recorded sound’s overall shrillness, Midori’s bass notes swell and reverberate, laying a wide and deep foundation for the tonal structures she has erected on them. She makes connections both surprising and natural between phrases in the fugue; again, though, the sense of the forest dwarfs that of the individual trees. She creates in the Andante a contemplative calm that perhaps spills over to rein in her virtuosity in the following Allegro—in particular, the several series of rapid notes. The Second Partita, with its famous Chaconne, reaches arguably higher, not only in Bach’s conception but in Midori’s execution. She begins by playing the Allemanda with the stops and starts outlined by Carl Flesch in the second book of his monumental treatise on violin playing. Any listener who can accept this practice should find Midori’s realization of it highly appealing; but her sprightliness in the Corrente should sound fresh and creative to everyone. She ornaments the repeat of the Sarabanda. Will this make them less attractive for further listening? Midori stresses in her notes how these works perpetually reveal new things (and her performances show that she means what she says); but listeners, even if they greatly enjoy her performance, will hear them repeatedly in the exact same way. I’d guess that while the excitement of experiencing them for the first time may abate upon subsequent hearings, the depth of her personal involvement will still transform what could have been an unvarying record into a human testament (akin to Nathan Milstein’s or Jascha Heifetz’s personal readings), which can be experienced in a variety of ways even though they remain the same. The Giga exhibits the same exuberant sense of rhythmic improvisation that marked the First Sonata’s Giga. The Ciaccona may clock in at 12:02, but I expected students to do what they thought they needed to do and only then see how long it took (most of them fell without tinkering at around 14:30). In Midori’s case, the 12:02 belies the strength of her interpretation and enhances the smoothness with which the sections flow into each other. Not everything sounds well oiled, however: Some of the chords around the 10-minute mark seem rough and labored, although that may hardly matter in such a performance.

The monumental Third Sonata and the almost flippant Third Partita make an odd couple (Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle?). Midori employs a wide dynamic range in the Adagio (as she does elsewhere) to heighten the movement’s rhetorical impact. Near the middle of the movement, when the theme moves to the bass, she breaks the chords from top to bottom—a procedure once so greatly frowned upon that it sounds somewhat odd here. (I remember having to expiate considerable guilt when breaking even one chord downwards in Heinrich Biber’s solo passacaglia.) Employing a palette of dynamics, she layers the entries in the fugue to striking effect; a sense of freedom enlivens the episodes. As in the slow movement of the Second Sonata, she’s as contemplative as a mystic in the Largo; and, as in the finale of that sonata, she doesn’t feel compelled to play this finale as a concerto-like romp. (Milstein played the Allegro assai alone on programs, but Midori seems too closely connected to the inward-looking preceding movement to lend it to such a use.) Pablo Sarasate recorded the Third Partita’s brilliant Preludio at lightning speed (2:47)—not so Midori. At least it seems that way—she takes only 3:38 to get through it (compare that to Heifetz’s 3:12 in 1952). So, her care and attention to detail belie the speed. She introduces ornamentation in the Loure, and occasionally in the Gavotte en Rondeau; it’s welcome because of the organic way in which she incorporates it. The Menuet I never wears out its welcome, so briskly does it move along.

In all, Midori’s set of Sonatas and Partitas, coming as late (relatively) in her career as it does, sounds flexible and nuanced and mature enough to rise very, very high in the list for those who prefer a profoundly personal reading that’s fresh and not slavishly modeled after the currently fashionable manner of performing them. In fact, I can’t think of a warmer, more affecting, or outright better set, even from those enjoying the highest reputations (such as Joseph Szigeti or George Enescu), for regular—and repeated—listening. Urgently recommended as a belated Christmas gift to yourself.

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