JS Bach: Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, BWV 1001-1006
Thomas Bowes (violin)
Navona Records NV 6159 157:43 mins (3 discs)
Bach’s music for solo violin occupies both technically and expressively the most elevated position on the Parnassian slopes. According to CPE Bach, his father understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments and this understanding illuminates each and every bar of these exalted pieces. Every violinist brings his or her own personal stamp to the music and the range of possibilities is unlimited. This recording is a spin-off from Thomas Bowes’s 2012-13 ‘Bach Pilgrimage’ concert tour of UK churches.
Bowes pursues a mainly convincing path between historically-minded practice and more traditionally anchored performance. As he himself attests, his approach to playing style is to acknowledge historical context but to move away from it when it felt too limiting or too fixed. Ornamentation is lean and vibrato restrained. What distinguishes his playing above all, though, are an unusually wide dynamic range and a predilection for slower tempos than any competing version that readily comes to mind. A striking example of the former presents itself in the Allegro of the A minor Sonata, while the time Bowes allows himself for the great Chaconne of the D minor Partita is a generous 18 and a half minutes as opposed to, for instance, Gil Shahan’s 11 minutes or Nathan Milstein’s 14 minutes. For the most part I enjoyed his unfashionably slow tempos, especially since he discovers features in Bach’s writing which can easily be overlooked by speed-merchants. I part company with him, though, where dynamics are concerned. They felt too often exaggerated to my ears. Otherwise, there is much to enjoy in Bowes’s refined and elegantly poised playing, and recorded sound is first-rate.