The Greatest Performance of All Time?

It could be argued that if you can establish the finest performance of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor for solo violin then you have found the greatest performance of a violinist, if not the greatest performance in music. There have been many amazing recordings of Bach’s Chaconne by some wonderful violinists. In a preceding article ‘Bach’s Chaconne: His Finest Moment or The Greatest Music Ever Written? on the background to this section of Bach’s Partita No.2, I also approached the question often posited as to which is the greatest performance of this pinnacle piece and outlined some of the candidates that we have from the time when quality recordings were available in the last century onwards. Perhaps you have formed your own opinion and now I will make a suggestion as to the possibility of a defining recording and why.

I will precede that by stating that every single one of the soloists mentioned in that article have achieved staggering heights as artists and some degree of greatness. All are rightly very highly acclaimed and each recording is of outstanding merit. At this level I recognize that there are differences and that preferences between them are valid. Upon that we form opinions, likes, dislikes – “Hahn’s is too slow”, “Ehnes’ doesn’t move me like Vengerov’s”, “Gitlis’ is too harsh” or whatever – and arrive at favourites. I would add to that we should celebrate these differences and encourage creative interpretation. Without these we would only need one recording of each piece of music because all others would sound identical to the first and how boring would that be, we would tire of it much sooner. I am sure that if there were little difference between recordings we would complain far louder that X sounds like Z and that they all sound alike than we ever do about we don’t like the way A plays B. For me they are all great and at this level I would not seek to elevate one above the rest as I could only do so on ‘my preferences’. I will though give you my favourite performance (at this moment, and it may change tomorrow!)

Here is why I chose Vengerov’s performance of Bach’s Chaconne (taken from ‘Holocaust: A Musical Memorial Film From Auschwitz’). It is not because his interpretation and rendition is superior to others but because the setting is as much a part of the performance. The piece is perfect for the occasion and Vengerov’s interpretation is as ever as sensitive, contemplative, technically excellent and totally heartfelt, as if he is telling the whole story of the tragedy of humanity that finds its resting place in this monument to the past; as if lives in the present and will inevitably project into the future. Every note reverberates to the suffering of each life lost there, every chord reverberates their pain into our future that it should never be forgotten, its bass melodies and dark plaintive passages sing to the most bass instincts and likely to become depraved in man; whilst its souring hymn like sections sing to the highest possibilities, evoking us to transcend and rise again out of the depths to which we have once fallen. In Bach’s Chaconne played by Vengerov in Auschwitz we have the highest possibility of man brought into the lowest of which we have been possible. Yin and yang are brought together and resolved back into one. There is both a tragedy and a perfection, almost an inevitability that it must be. Listening to this I recall Menhuin’s words “Ever since I could remember I had tried to relate the beauty of great music to the harmony of life. As a small child I even imagined that if I could but play the Chaconne of Bach inspiringly enough in the Sistine Chapel under the eyes of Michelangelo, all that is ignoble and vile would miraculously disappear from the world” and realise that I am witnessing the physical manifestation of “all that is ignoble and vile” in this world finally brought to redemption through its meeting with its polar opposite.

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