ALEX CHADWICK, host:

DAY TO DAY contributor David Was is half of the band Was Not Was, which is known for late 20th century dance music. David has also worked as a jazz critic for a newspaper, but he also likes classical music.

Here, are David's thoughts about a new recording of compositions from the Baroque era.

DAVID WAS: A new 2-CD recording, Bach's Violin Sonatas and Partitas by John Holloway on ECM Records is not only notable for his superb musicianship, but for the instrument that he plays: the Baroque violin, a precursor of the modern instrument with an earthier tone and strings made out of gut.

The music that emanates from such an instrument may have been the same that Shakespeare heard when he asked, is it not strange that sheep's guts should hail souls out of men's bodies?

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: That sheep's gut and a few strands of horsehair for the bow should create stirring music is but half the miracle. The other half we owe to the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed these pieces in 1720 when an employ of a certain Prince Leopold, a Calvinist who shunned most religious music and who encouraged the composer to write secular instrumental music.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: John Holloway not only uses a traditional instrument on these recordings, he also works from surviving manuscripts that Bach penned himself with all the ornaments, dynamics and phrasing meticulously detailed. Also, Bach seemed to suggest further expression in the graceful and wavy way that he attached groupings of notes, a feature that's absent from the standardized, modern printed versions.

A page of Bach's music is reprinted in the liner notes, and is a work of art in itself.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: That the written music is so richly detailed is a great gift to modern interpreters, even though Bach - himself a violinist, as was his father before him - would have needed but scant interpolation when performing these works. Such attention to detail led some critics to deride Bach as a powdered wig stuffed full of learning, the equivalent of a geek into today's vernacular.

While one can hear pristine logic and mathematical precision in these compositions, I also hear a soaring, almost spiritual yearning that few other Baroque composers achieved.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Holloway is at his best playing the famous chaconne movement from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, a movement that Johannes Brahms called one of the most wonderful and incomprehensible pieces of music he had ever heard, a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.

Nearly 15 minutes of length, it is said to have been written after the death of Bach's wife - who, by the way, bore him 20 children - and represents the whole circle of life.

Holloway's Baroque violin cuts through the 31 variations with acrobatic daring and raw emotion both - both no small feat - and from traditional gut and horsehair, too.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Musician David Was. The album of Bach is the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo. It's from ECM Records. And here's a bit more of violinist John Holloway.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.