JS BACH; YSAŸE Solo Violin Sonatas
It does seem extraordinary that no violinist before Antje Weithaas has recorded a full double cycle of the solo violin sonatas of JS Bach and Eugène Ysaÿe. After all, Ysaÿe’s indebtedness to Bach is well known and celebrated, meaning representatives from the respective collections are frequently programmed alongside each other. Still, as surprising as this is, it does mean that this three-volume project from Antje Weithaas (regular chamber collaborator with the likes of Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff, Martin Helmchen and Lars Vogt) pushes her solo career further under the noses of British and US audiences than has often happened.
Here we have Vol 3 (the first was reviewed 3/15), and before wading into detail it’s worth outlining the trilogy’s distinguishing elements as a whole. Most notably Weithaas has taken all her ornamentations and bowings from Bach’s score. Equally key to her sound, though, is that she’s playing on a modern set-up: chin rest, metal strings and even a 2001 instrument from Stefan-Peter Greiner, the German luthier also behind Christian Tetzlaff’s magnificent violin; and it must be said that if you ever needed proof that 18th-century Cremona is not a prerequisite for tonal riches, individuality and power, then Weithaas’s Greiner does that job very nicely. In its lower reaches it’s soft, cloaked and dark, with an ear-pricking modern edge; then, while duskiness also forms part of its top register’s tonal armoury, so does a firm, powerful, singing platinum tone which Weithaas employs to great effect.
On to some detail, and as the dark, pulsing Largo of Bach’s Sonata No 3 gets under way, it’s the bowings that first hit the ears. More detached than we’re often used to, they’re still far from choppy under Weithaas’s graceful delivery. Instead, their ‘avoiding of ease and comfort’ (as she puts it) simply brings a boost of extra vitality. Another triumph, when we later transition into Ysaÿe’s Iberian-coloured Sonata No 6, is the clarity of the connection between Bach’s earlier pastoral rhythms and Ysaÿe’s 20th-century Habanera lilt.
I suspect Weithaas won’t remain the only violinist to put these two cycles together. However, I also suspect that, regardless of who next takes the plunge, hers will yet stand tall alongside it.