JS BACH Sonatas and Partitas (Ning Feng)
Ning Feng’s solo Bach is quite unlike anyone else’s, pure filigree in certain of the faster movements (the presto Double from the First Partita or the Prelude to the Third), loose-limbed and long-breathed in the Adagios, the G minor Sonata’s opening movement remarkable for its elasticity and subtle dynamic shifts. Then there are the Fugues, again forever altering in volume or emphases, the way the A minor Fugue twists and turns, its double-stops positively kaleidoscopic. But it’s the illusion of a freewheeling conversation projected from within that held me captive, a sense of constant musing, the range of voices, tonally speaking, and Feng’s flat refusal to stick to a metronomic pulse – that, and the expressive scope of his playing, emotionally potent yet with the most discreet use of vibrato. People often tell me that vibrato isn’t necessary for underlining the expressive properties of a piece. I take that claim on board intellectually but Feng is one of the few violinists who have for me demonstrated the theory’s rightness simply by the way he plays. Also the way he inserts tiny pauses between phrases, like minute intakes of breath, suggests parallels with the singing voice.
The D minor Chaconne is a case in point, a performance that honours the dancing origins of the piece (or should I say of ‘the form’), much enhanced by Feng’s ethereally detached phrasing in the instrument’s higher reaches. Alina Ibragimova is also marvellous in this respect but Feng’s extended repertoire of expressive gestures somehow draws me further into the workings of the piece. Arpeggiated passages are invariably either wistful or exciting and while colour-coding is a prominent virtue – with the Chaconne in particular – musical structure is never downplayed.
Aside from Ibragimova and of course the feted ‘historicals’ (too many of those to detail in this context), there are other players on the current circuit whose Bach-playing on disc I greatly admire, violinists such as the sweet-toned Hilary Hahn (the Third Sonata and Partitas Nos 2 & 3 – Sony, 2/98) and playful Ilya Gringolts (Second Sonata and Partitas Nos 1 & 3 – DG, 11/03), both of them highly individual interpreters of this timeless music; but Feng’s manner catches my breath in the way theirs doesn’t, quite. Asked to quote just one movement as a demonstration track it would have to be the Largo from the Third (C major) Sonata, just over three minutes’ worth but a perfect sampling of Feng’s sublimely perceptive approach. Yes, there are other ways to play this music – more extrovert, or austere, or heated, or overtly virtuoso – but if you want to take Bach’s solo violin music to your heart, intimately and as food for musical thought, then Feng’s recordings strike me as well-nigh ideal.