Mark Kaplan Pierces the Heart of Bach

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J.S. BACH: Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin / Mark Kaplan, violinist / Bridge 9460A/B (2 CDs)

I’m almost ashamed to admit that this is the kind of recording I might have passed on for review had I still been writing for a major classical journal—not because I dislike the music, but on the contrary, because there are so many performances of these Sonatas and Partitas out there, and I’ve heard so many of them that I was afraid of Bach Overload. And, from the first notes of this new release, I was worried by the fact that Kaplan seemed to take these pieces at not merely a leisurely pace but a granitic one, almost like Otto Klemperer’s recording of the Bach St, Matthew Passion.

But like Klemperer’s Passion, Kaplan creates here an entire world of feeling and emotion. For him, these are obviously not just Bach pieces to be played but major, monumental structures to be explored and savored, note by note and phrase by phrase. By the time you finish just one complete Sonata, you are emotionally drained, but you realize there are two more sonatas and the three partitas yet left to hear.

It is difficult to describe in words exactly what Kaplan does with this music; an objective description really isn’t enough, but I will try. To begin with, he plays in a more modern style. Kaplan plays a 1685 Stradivarius called “The Marquis” after the Marchese Spinola whose family owned this instrument for generations, and although he does not use straight tone, he does employ a light, fast vibrato which gives the illusion of straight tone without sacrificing beauty of sound. More importantly, to my ears, is that he knows how to “build” each piece, using both its structure and its emotional message (to him) to convey something far, far deeper than what one sees in the naked music. It is as if every note, every phrase of these monumental works has something to say to Kaplan and, in turn, he has something to say to you about them.

It took me a while to figure out who Kaplan’s tone reminded me of. It reminds me of Isaac Stern, but Stern in a really fired-up mood. I have to say that I was never much of a Stern fan, not because he couldn’t play the violin well—he certainly could—but because I found most of his performances very generic-sounding. There is nothing generic about Kaplan; on the contrary, he is an individualist of the highest order.

When Kaplan played the entire Sonatas and Partitas over two evenings at Ostin Hall in Los Angeles in October 2000, at a time when he was on the faculty of UCLA, Los Angeles Times critic Richard S. Ginell praised him for his “near-perfect intonation, even in the most treacherous multiple-stopped chords; expressive rubatos in the slower dances; sufficiently graceful rhythm in others. He could dig trenchantly into the Sonata No. 2’s great Fuga, finding the climaxes and crunching them with satisfying, robust attacks.” This is perhaps a bit more of a “macho” description of what Kaplan does in this music than I would say, but it’s very close. In style, he seems to me to combine the best of the Italian and German approaches to violin playing in that his long-lined passages have extraordinary lyricism yet do not collapse under the weight of the slow pace he chooses, while the fast movements have the brightness of sound and that identifiable “lift” to the rhythm that the best Italian violinists can bring to this music.

Prior to hearing Kaplan’s recording, my benchmark performances in these works were the ones recorded by the great Dutch violinist Sigiswald Kuijken way back in 1981. They were, I believe, the very first recordings made of these works using straight tone, and Kuijken was able (as so few Historically-Informed violinists can do) to make the violin sing without sounding whiny. Going back and relistening to Kuijken’s performances after hearing Kaplan’s, I still find much to admire insofar as the unusual approach is concerned (there is, as I’ve said many times, no conclusive evidence that 18th-century violinists played with constant straight tone or even mostly with straight tone), but because he is using constant straight tone, Kuijken is physically incapable of achieving the kind of emotional impact that Kaplan brings to this music.

Now, I’m not saying that no straight-tone violinist can achieve anything close to what Kaplan gives us, but I’m not holding my breath, either. Regular readers of my reviews know my philosophy: it’s the musical approach, not the instrument or the technique used, that brings a piece of music to life. If you don’t really love the music and get deep inside it, all your audience is going to hear is a nice progression of notes, possibly played with a good legato and spiffy stops but not much more. I’ll take an artist—a real artist—like Kaplan over a more clinical approach any day of the week.

As I was preparing to upload this review online, I discovered that this is Kaplan’s second recording of these works. The first was apparently made for Mitch Miller Music (14630-2) Kaplan early Bachin 1991-92—an image is inserted here—but I’ve never heard it or even seen a review of it. (Kaplan also recorded Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Wieniawski’s Concerto No. 2, with Miller conducting, for the same label.) I can only imagine that he must have grown in this music over the years or he wouldn’t have insisted on re-recording it. Incidentally, this recording was made in 2011, so it apparently took a few years to get the nod for release.

As noted earlier, I purposely avoid most new recordings of these great works so I can’t say with any certitude that this recording is the best out there, but by way of comparison I also reviewed Rachel Barton Pine’s new version of them (Testament: Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Avie AV2360). Much as I’ve loved her in past recordings, her insistence on using straight tone in early music hamstrings her emotional projection. Her performances are more deeply felt than Kuijken’s, but every time you get the impression that she is digging into the score, all her instrument is capable of projecting is a shallower version of the emotion that Kaplan gives us in spades. One good example is the “Siciliana” of the first Sonata. Barton Pine plays it with superb balance and her patented clear tone, whereas Kaplan, who extends it more than a minute longer, is doing something entirely different. He is not playing music; he is communicating something deep and personal. Indeed, this is even true of that sonata’s concluding “Presto,” played at the same tempo by both violinists. Barton Pine has a certain swagger, she makes the music dance, but Kaplan views it as yet another way of communicating his inner feelings, building it phrase by phrase in a slow crescendo. This is not to say that Barton Pine’s recording is shallow. In comparison to many a HIP violinist, she has a unique sparkle regardless of playing method used, but compared to Kaplan it is like hearing Montserrat Caballé sing Massenet’s Élégie before turning to Feodor Chaliapin, who tears your heart out. There is good, and there is great. Both Kuijken’s and Barton Pine’s performances are ones you will listen to occasionally, but you’ll go back to Kaplan’s, in whole or part, much more often.

This is a great recording, plain and simple.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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