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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

ESS.A.Y 1049-50

Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin

  • Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001
  • Partita in B minor, BWV 1002
  • Sonata in A minor, BWV 1003
  • Partita in D minor, BWV 1004
  • Sonata in C Major, BWV 1005
  • Partita in E Major, BWV 1006
Mela Tenenbaum, violin
ESS.A.Y CD1049-50
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I live in a big house. To me, it's a mansion. Susan calls it 'the barn'. I also have more CDs than a person should be allowed. Despite the size of this house, I keep most of my CDs on shelves in the basement. Down there are the discs I will turn to from time-to-time. Upstairs are the first choices, mostly orchestral by conductor: Stokowski, Walter, Furtwängler, Barbirolli, Beecham, Monteux, Kubelík and all the others. After listening to Tenenbaum's Bach, I took my Perlman set to the basement.

I made a few notes on my pad the first evening, then just sat back and bathed in the glorious music making I was experiencing. More listenings revealed that my comments tended to repeat themselves as each piece passed before my ears. So rather than bore you with all of my notes, let me mention just a couple items to point to. The Partita #2 is my personal favorite. The Ciaccona, in particular, is one of the finest pieces I have ever heard. This may be due to the fact that I was introduced to it through Stokowski's magnificent transcription for orchestra. (I am aware of the fact that this may horrify some of you…you'll get over it.) In the opening Allemanda, about 37 and 39 seconds in, Ms. Tenenbaum plays a little 'trill' (I don't know how else to put it) that is absolutely delightful. This seems to be missing, not just recessed, in Perlman's recording. Now, don't get me wrong, the Perlman is a great recording. I am constantly in awe of what he does with his instrument. On the other hand, Tenenbaum instills the music with a passion which Perlman seems to keep at a distance. Some people may feel she 'wears her heart on her sleeve' but this is no condemnation so far as I am concerned. In the Ciaccona, I am brought to mind of the Stokowski transcription more than in Perlman. Interestingly, Tenenbaum takes the piece at 14:10 to Perlman's 15:46 and Stokowski's 17:55. Yet it is Tenenbaum who captures the spirit Stokowski has also found, her attacks are sharper, like Stokowski, than Perlman. I keep referring to the Perlman because his is the most 'popular' set of these masterpieces and the one you, dear reader, may have at hand for comparison.

As I listened more and more, another name got scribbled on my note pad: Glenn Gould. I would have to say that Ms. Tenenbaum does for this music what Gould did for (or to?) the Goldberg Variations. Another comparison that came to ear is Nathaniel Rosen and the Bach Cello Suites (on John Marks records: 6/7). Like Gould and Rosen, Tenenbaum finds more, or perhaps a different expression in Bach than I have ever heard before and I like what I hear. This is after several hearings, as I am doing now listening to the music through the tiny speakers on the computer. (No, this is not my normal reference equipment) Prepare yourself for delight after delight in her insights. At the same time, however, the word which most often appeared in my notes is "melancholy". The juxtaposition of delight and melancholy may seem and odd one, but it is such a tangential development of 'meaning' that I find fascinating.

So, I wondered whence came this Ms. Tenenbaum. I had not heard of her until receiving this set. There are no notes in the set that will enlighten you, either. I emailed Maestro Richard Kapp, at ESS.A.Y and he kindly sent me a lot of information about her. She is an emigre from the former USSR. One reason for her obscurity has to do with the anti-Semitic policies of the Soviet Union "which, for example, precluded the possibility of putting her name in red on a poster – the sure sign of a major artist – because Tenenbaum (her husband's name) was a clearly Jewish moniker." (All quotes from Maestro Richard Kapp's email) She hails from the Ukraine and left there largely because of the Chernobyl disaster, which almost killed her three children. Maestro Kapp did not tell me how or when they met, but he went on to say, "…in the space of a few short years she has become something of a legend among string players in New York who know that she represents an entirely different niveau than what they normally encounter. It is important to keep in mind that Mela does not want to be Itzhak Perlman! Her repertoire is immense, she functions both as chamber musician and soloist, then takes over Philharmonia Virtuosi as concert master at a level that is absolutely unique in my experience." I would have to say that, on evidence of this recording, she is certainly unique and involving.

I have not listened to the third disc as of writing these words above. This lagniappe is a discussion of the music. I didn't want what she said to affect my perception of the music. I have to admit, too, that I often think musicians should let their music speak for them. Sometimes, as in the case of Stokowski, what they have to say seems to make little sense. Since then, however, I have listened to the commentary and I am pleased to report that it is enlightening. She speaks about the music and then plays it to reinforce the point she is making in words. Mrs. Tenenbaum played the pieces as a young girl. This is not as unusual as it may sound, as she points out it was expected of musicians in the Soviet Union. She tells about reading Leopold Auer and Pablo Casals. There is a terror in playing these solo pieces because there is nothing to cover up for your own errors. She came across a version of the Ciaccona with piano accompaniment, written by no less than Robert Schumann. This version she played in concert, but the piano part literally made her laugh and she never again tried that. As she put it, she learned, "what is not necessary should go." There is also a wonderful discussion about the first sonata where she discusses, and plays, both melody and then melody and grace notes. Hearing this you appreciate the music even more. I could go on, but you will find this little extra a welcome and educational experience.

All in all, this was a very rewarding listening experience. Strongly recommended.

Copyright © 1998, Robert Stumpf II

Trumpet