Alina Ibragimova Reveals the Genius of Bach’s Music

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Alina Ibragimova, Wigmore Hall, London, 24 1012 (GD)

Sonata No. 1 in G minor BWV 1001
Partita No. 1 in B minor BWV 1002
Sonata No. 2 in A minor BWV 1003
Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV 1004


Originally Alina Ibragimova was down to play the three Brahms sonatas but her pianist Stephen Kovacevich was indiposed. Not being put off Ibragimova chose to perform four of Bach’s daunting solo sonatas and partitas. These ever fascinating works(sounding as fresh and original now as they must have done in Bach’s time) are a kind of bible for any violinist. If any works are going to ‘expose’ a violinist it is these. Anyone familiar with Abragimova’s 2009 recordings of the complete six sonatas and partitas will know how accomplished her Bach is. Indeed it was fascinating to compare her performances tonight with that recording. It was basically the same compelling interpretation, but there were some quite subtle differences, mostly in terms of phrasing and tempo. Also Ibragimova is one of the few musicians whose recorded performances are as spontaneous and fresh as her live recitals.

It is tempting to imagine how her interpretation of these work will progress as she gets older. Before starting this review I did some comparative interpretation checks to place Ibragimova in context so to speak. I started with the fabled recording the Hungarian violinist Johanna Martzy made in London between 1954 and 1955. I got to know these works through this recording and at the time I couldn’t imagine anyone equalling her, let alone surpassing her. In the opening Adagio from Sonata No. 1 in G minor BWV 1001 Ibragimova plays the whole movement as a single expressive line (in both her recording and this performance); but within this line she attends to every turn of phrase, every subtle nuance, transition and dynamic/melodic contrast with an absolute conviction and beauty.

But really these ‘terms’ can’t express such radiant musicianship. Perhaps it is more helpful to speak of the mood (what the Germans call ‘Stimmung’) she established from the beginning. Unlike traditional renditions Ibragimova is really quite restrained. But her ‘sotto voce’ speaks an eloquence and ‘depth’ (another overused term) I have rarely encountered. The shock for me here was to hear Martzy again, who I thought peerless in this music. Compared to Ibgragimova Martzy sounded rather lacking in subtlety, finesse; also big toned, with too much heavy vibrato and what sounds now rather unengaging phrasing with rough transitions and a poor sense of line; it is too sectionalised. – and this is allowing for the obviously inferior recording quality. Although Ibragimova uses an Anselmo Bellosio violin c. 1775, she plays in a modern style with a full tonal range, but she is also fully in tune with ‘period’ sounding performing practices. She played tonight with no vibrato and I would say that rather than reducing the expressive range she enhanced it with more diversity and expression than the technically perfect Julia Fischer, and more dynamic contrast and agility than the otherwise excellent Isabelle Faust, who plays in a more ‘period’ style. These interpretive differences became clear in the second movement Fuga: Allegro. Of the same sonata. This time I compared Ibragimova with the excellent German violinist Thomas Zehetmair who, like Martzy, but with far more exactitude, launches into this movement ( a fugue in three parts) with plenty of swaggering brio. But Ibragimova does something completely different. She initiates the opening phrases in a light, agile, almost floating manner sounding, if anything, more arresting, thereby making a wonderful contrast with the later more complex variation themes of the movement. And Ibragimova is second to none in terms of virtuosity (never for its own sake) and dynamic power when the music demands this

Ibragimova played the final Presto of the first sonata at a really fast tempo, as the marking Presto asks for. Presto is a rare marking in Bach, implying a virtuoso rendition. I have never heard it played as fast as Ibragimova played it tonight, but also I have never heard such clarity, such graceful energy. Similarly, in the same sonata, I have never heard the very difficult Siciliano played with such a feeling of the most illusive contrasts. The movement contains two upper parts, with a delicate bass line, and the more sotto voce she played this bass line, the more it seemed to register as voiced. As as been commented at Bach’s time and up to the present this music has an element of magic; the performer appearing as a kind of conjurer. For Bach and composers like Vivaldi the unaccompanied string instrument was (is) limited in terms of contrupuntal projection. So Bach writes in to the music an implied polyphony in which the listener has to imagine parts which are no longer being played while others are being brought out. In the late Jacques Derrida’s terms it is a matter of negotiating the ‘trace’ of a particular part. With this in mind Ibragimova appeared as the supreme magician, voicing the unvoiced, with double-stopped measures of meticulous split second timing. The four works played tonight; two sonatas and two partitas, in their own terms, imply a level of contrast, the partitas projecting more of the dance element denoted in the various movement titles. I say a ‘level of contrast’ as there are also dance elements in the sonatas.

‘Fast’ is not really the correct term to describe Ibragimova’s tempo in such movements as the Corrente – Double: Presto of Partita No.1 in B minor BWV 1002. It would be more accurate to use the term Tovey used when discussing Bach in fast tempo: a sense of ‘movement’. very much linked semantically to ‘flight’, which relates of course to ‘fugue’, and even Bach’s ‘dance’ movements contain the trace of fugal, or contrupuntal elements. The Corrente, contains a fast dance tune in the anacrusis and strong beats in the bar into which Ibragimova interplolated a subtle, even illusive, strain of rubato, especially in the strong beat accents. The Double as a Presto is a kind of decorative derivative of the Corrente in a regular pattern of figurations. Here again it was quite extraordinary the way she was able to articulate the two fugal parts here with such illumination at such a ‘fast’ tempo in the Double. Similarly Ibragimova compellingly negotiated the contrast ‘difference’ between the three to four part 3/4 Sarabande and the concluding regular rhythms of the Tempo di Borea where the dance like quality is less pronounced and almost erased.

Apart from the monumental Chaconne which concludes Partita No. 2 in A minor BWV 1004 the opening Grave and Fuga of Sonata No. 2 in A minor BWV 1003, was probably the most complex music performed tonight. It unfolds over a descending bass line set out in the first two bars running throughout whole movement. It paves the way for the harmonically related Fugue which is longer than many of the fugues in the ‘Well-tempered Clavier. Ibragimova played the opening prelude at a quite broad tempo but with plenty of ‘movement’. Her transition into the fugue at a more rapid tempo was remarkable, as was her negotiation of the monophonic episodes and overall proportional equilibrium with double-stopping again deployed in a most economic fashion. In the concluding Allegro the echo effects she achieved had to heard to be believed. I would love to go into more detail regarding the other movements, especially of Partita No. 2 with its noble, chromatically charged opening Allemanda and beguiling Giga, but reviews, even this one, are limited in time and space. So I shall end by making a few comments on the Chaconne itself as a fitting coda to a truly compelling an enchanting recital.

Actually there are traces of the Chaconne in the harmonic interterstices of the preceding Sarabande; Bach is preparing the listener,as it were. The Chaconne is based on a four part harmonic progression in the form of a bass-line from which 35 variations develop on a chromatically descending line with increasingly new melodic/motivic patterns and groups of similar or contrasting entities ( including a magical transition from D major back the home key of D minor) reaching a climax at the end of the movement and of the whole Partita. Ibragimova pulled out all the stops here. The range of her tone initiated at the beginning of the Chaconne was both staggering in its harmonic richness, filling the whole hall, but also sounding perfectly natural, in line with Bach’s stunning inventions. The attention she gave to the details of the variations multiple/complex layers made it sound as though there was not one, but a myriad violins playing and subtending her traversal of this unique music.

One would have thought that after such a marathon Ibragimova would have just wanted to have a break. But no. She came out amid the tumultuous applause to give a delightful encore in the shape of the Gavotte from Partita No. 3 in E major BWV 1006. She tailed the last notes off in a kind decrescendo, as though to say ‘this is the only encore I am giving’. But the gesture might well have had another meaning? Unfortunately in the second half of the recital, and at the beginning of the Chaconne, the dull tone of reverberations from someone’s mobile were quite audible, but it didn’t seem to affect Ibragimova in anyway. For me, and others in the audience, it was a tiresome and unwanted intrusion. But finally it was not so much Ibragimova’s superb playing, but the genius of Bach’s music that was resonating in my head as I left the hall. And that is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay to any musician!

Geoff Diggines.