SEI SOLO: Bach’s Six Sonatas & Partitas for Violin Alone—Thomas Bowes, violin

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I first heard British violinist Thomas Bowes on a Signum Records release. It was a recording of the Walton and Barber Violin Concertos conducted by the wonderful violinist, Joseph Swensen, with the equally wonderful Malmo Opera Orchestra. Both performance and recording were superb. 

If you know that recording, you will appreciate the art of a very special violinist. Bowes has the technical gifts of many of the virtuosos seen before the public, but he brings much more to his performances than many fiddlers spinning yet another Mendelssohn. There is deep commitment, musicality, and yes, risk. Even on recordings, as heard here on this marvellous new set of CDs from Navona Records, you will thrill at the risks that Bowes attempts, both with tempo and in dynamic range . It makes for an exceptional listening experience. 

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So, how do you make three CDs of a solo stringed instrument remain interesting? It helps that it contains the music of Bach—many people consider these Sonatas and Partitas the zenith of Western Music. And Bowes' performances echo that importance.

This recording spotlights the magisterial sonatas and partitas for solo violin written by Bach in 1720. Bowes believes: 'these six stand-alone compositions, while each individually offering insight into Bach's genius, reveal more when taken as one epic work—and especially when set against the tragedy in Bach’s life in the year of composition.'

The press kit continues:

Each disc starts with a sonata and concludes with a partita, moving through different keys. The sonatas showcase a larger, more abstract expression, while movements in the partitas are more focused on elements of the dance.

Bowes views these six compositions as a vehicle for exploration into the existential, taking his cue from Bach’s cryptic title ‘sei solo’, which reads ‘you are alone’, punning on the Italian for ‘6’ and ‘you are’.

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First, the technical. Bowes' intonation is flawless, whether bouncing along in the dance movements at speed or gliding gracefully through the incredibly difficult slow movements with double/triple stopping and chords. As heard on all great recordings of these works, the chordal intonation and the placement of those chords in the melodic structure makes or breaks these pieces. Bowes accomplishes all a sensitive listener will ever need. He has made a study of these works over many years and toured the world performing them. This recording must feel like a culminating victory of sorts, if one can ever feel victorious playing Bach?

The recording is very good and sourced from Abbey Road. I could have used a little more warmth, but under the scrutiny of headphones, the detail is incredible. Following along with the scores is recommended—you will marvel at the colours Bowes achieves on his splendid Amati fiddle. 

 Bowes recording Bach at Abbey Road Studio No. 1. Photo credit: Ben Ealovega. 

Bowes recording Bach at Abbey Road Studio No. 1. Photo credit: Ben Ealovega. 

With this Bach repertoire, Bowes is jumping with both feet and hair on fire into a pool of recordings played by every master since the recording cylinder was first introduced. Would you want to go up against Szygeti, Heifetz, Kriesler, Perlman and all the highly promoted young lions (and lionesses) from today's house brands? Bowes has guts, goes for glory, and music lovers are the lucky ones. At times, Bowes even tops my favourite recording of the works with Canadian James Ehnes. 

For me, the Bach solo violin works rise and fall with one movement, the great Chaconne from Partita No. 2

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Bowes' performance is spellbinding. It's aggressive, submissive and every flavour of musical domination or lack thereof in between. His bow control here is outstanding, equal is his musical shaping of the almost 20 minute movement. The D minor reprise is one of those very emotional moments where a composer can bring you to your knees. Bowes is as gut-wrenching as anybody here. And then he begins the magical D Major section with the quietest dynamic I've heard on record, almost bringing the music to a stop. Brave. Risky! But, it works. It is not a cheap trick. It's simply another magical musical expression. The three CDs are full of them. 

A great violinist friend of mine says he listens for about 16 bars and if a violinist has nothing to say musically, he stops listening. Bowes has a lot to say. A lot of it unheard heretofore. Very highly recommended.  

Release Date: June 8, 2018

Catalog #: NV6159

Format: Digital and CD

Price: $14.99

Microphone List

Schoeps MK2H (Pair)

Neumann TLM 50 (Pair)

Neumann TLM 170 (Pair)

DPA 4015 (Pair)

Cole 4038

Producer & Editor Stephen Frost

Engineer Arne Akselberg

Navona Records