Solo violin is far from dull

Selecting pieces for solo violin did not use to feature highly for me. They struck me as lengthy and dull and rarely provided me with the right fix: there was almost always something more fulfilling, more substantial, and often not necessarily classical.

When it comes to the Sonatas and Partitas by J S Bach, three of each, this can be quite understandable, for in the wrong hands they can come over as mundane exercises; but in the right hands, they are something altogether different. If, like me, you thought that listening to solo violin was boring, think again – and feast your ears on this to be converted for ever.

The pieces were composed in 1720 (around the same time as the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, on which I have posted previously). The music critic Kirk McElhearn hailed them as “miracles of music, where a single violin embarks on some of the most remarkable musical discourses ever written.” I have heard them played by many of the great masters, but it was not until I heard Alina Ibragimova playing them all at the BBC Proms last year that I really woke up and realised, thanks entirely to her account, what I was missing: her rendition took them out of any exercise category and into the realms of freedom, even improvisation. They come alive, full of colour, contrast, different and very distinct voices: far from dull, they become thrilling and totally absorbing.

I am attaching Ibragimova’s playing of the Prelude to the third Partita, which will be familiar to many; but  I wonder if you will have heard anything like this before. It is easy enough to see how violinists may have viewed these as exercises, but even a scale in the right hands can become a joy in itself. This is also a good example of where the visual can enhance the enjoyment of the sound: player and instrument are as one, acting as a combined conduit to allow the music to emerge, uncluttered, and crystal clear. The result is exquisite, supporting Benedict’s observation in Much Ado About Nothing – “Is it not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” 

I hope you will be similarly converted and inspired to dig out the rest.


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