I just read this article on Nigel Kennedy talking about Bach interpretation. You have to realize, when reading things that performers, conductors, composers or business people in music say in the press, that it is mostly special pleading designed to build audiences. In other words, the truth is not the real end of the exercise. But a little criticism is fun to read. Kennedy is accusing other performers of either being soulless technicians or fussy academics. I have no doubt that there are lots of examples of both as well as every other sin: facile virtuosity, maudlin sentimentality, Bach as a circus stunt and so on. Hey, you can do anything to Bach you want! He's dead, he can't sue. So let's listen to a little Bach on solo violin and see what we hear. Here is Nigel Kennedy playing the gigue from the D minor Partita:
(at least I think it's Nigel Kennedy, with YouTube you can never be sure...) Well that's ok, I guess. It's not lacking in passion. But the constant fooling with the tempo, the pushing and pulling of the dynamics and the slightly frenetic tempo tend to make you feel you are watching someone juggle violins rather than play Bach. Here is Itzak Perlman playing the same piece. Blogger refuses to embed the clip, so please follow this link. That has less of the pushing the tempo around, but that tempo is so fast there probably isn't room anyway. Whenever he lands on a longer note, there is a wobbly vibrato. This feels one-dimensional somehow. Here is Hilary Hahn playing the gigue on a German tv show. The performance starts around 54 seconds.
Ah, now that is rather nice. The first performance that has some elegance to it. The tempo is better and it actually has the feel of a dance. Dynamics are integrated into the musical ideas. Good performance, clean and musical. Here is a performance by a non-celebrity violinist:
Sure, there were some flaws: a glissando that probably should be omitted, a little memory lapse, some technical wobbles: but I find this perfectly listenable. He brought out some different aspects of the phrasing and it sounded to me like a sincere performance of the piece. Here is a performance by the late Austrian violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan:
Quite nice, but a couple of things bother me. Like some others he tends to anticipate the beat and there is too much vibrato on the longer notes. Here is a very different version. Hopkinson Smith plays it on baroque lute with added bass notes. This is following Bach's own example, who made a lute version of the E major partita for lute with added bass notes:
Now that's a slow tempo! But you get used to it. Here is Jascha Heifetz playing in 1935. The gigue begins around 3:16:
Tempo is a bit brisk, but it has an airy grace to it and the feel of a dance. At this point I had a version by David Russell on guitar, but that was taken down from YouTube, so I've removed it. What I would really like to put up is Pepe Romero's beautiful version, but it doesn't seem to be available. Here is the Hungarian violinist Kristof Barati:
Wow! That is very, very nice. He is the same age as Hilary Hahn, 32. But this performance is even more poised. I think that when Bach is really played well there is something almost celestial about it. This is the first version that captures that. Now, finally, let's hear Menuhin, about whom Nigel Kennedy raves. Unfortunately I can't find him playing this gigue on YouTube. But here is the gigue to the E major partita, which is quite similar:
Well, the phrase ham-fisted comes to mind. The tempo doesn't feel steady and much of it is slightly out of tune. The articulations are a bit odd and he starts telegraphing the end about two measures too soon. Where did we get the idea that Menuhin was a great Bach interpreter?
My conclusion, and yours too, I hope, after this exercise is that Nigel Kennedy is a blowhard whose Bach, honestly, is about the worst short of that of his teacher, Yehudi Menuhin. If you really want great solo Bach on the violin, your best bets are Kristof Barati and Hilary Hahn. I was actually surprised by this even though I am pretty cynical about musical celebrities. I just didn't expect the results to be so blatant.