Isabelle Faust’s illuminating solo Bach at the Phillips Collection

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Isabelle Faust (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

J.S. Bach, Partita for Solo Violin No. 3 in E, BWV 1006
J.S. Bach, Sonata for Solo Violin No. 3 in C, BWV 1005
J.S. Bach, Partita for Solo Violin No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004

After the final note of Isabelle Faust’s memorable recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, the German violinist held the audience in rapt silence for what seemed like an eternity. That moment – really about half a minute – allowed for a deep appreciation of what had just passed: an hour and a quarter of intensely concentrated and illuminating solo Bach.

Faust performed two of Bach’s solo Partitas and one Sonata, all without intermission. Her Bach had none of the romantic gloss or mechanical perfection that other violinists bring to this repertory. Instead, her instrument sang with a natural eloquence and an austere beauty, speaking not of Olympian mastery but of a humane approach to these towering masterworks, full of freshness and vitality. Faust’s technical security, to be sure, was never in question. But there was a touching vulnerability and even humility to her performance – in Faust’s directness and emotional honesty, in her willingness to show a sense of struggle.  This was Bach on a very human scale – an act of secular pilgrimage.

The recital ended with a searching account of the monumental Chaconne that concludes the D-minor Partita. For all of Faust’s command of the movement’s progression of ideas and sense of drama, it was the quieter moments that proved the most moving: her whispered mezza voce after the music modulates to a sunny D major, and her artlessly inquisitive probing of the unexpected harmonies Bach passes through as he returns home to D minor. Through her eloquent introspection, Faust constructed the ideal musical space for a Sunday afternoon after a cataclysmic week in Washington: a cathedral of contemplation.

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