Modern vs Baroque violin? Vibrato vs non-vibrato? Often a lot of fuss is made about these issues when discussing performances of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. But listening to Alina Ibragimova’s performance in the Royal Albert Hall as part of this year’s Late Night Bach Prom series, such simplistic distinctions seemed meaningless. Yes, she played on a modern violin and modern bow, but with virtually no vibrato – however, the level of her playing transcended such matters that most of the time one didn’t even notice.

Alina Ibragimova © BBC | Chris Christodoulou (at Prom 19)
Alina Ibragimova
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou (at Prom 19)

This was the second evening of Ibragimova’s traversal of all six of Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas (review of the first evening here), in which she performed the Second and Third Partitas and the Sonata no.3 in C major. Over the two evenings, her performance highlighted the stylistic differences of the two forms. The Sonatas are more serious, introspective and more polyphonically conceived, whereas the Partitas are made of various dance movements and more spirited and extrovert (perhaps with the exception of the great Chaconne that concludes Partita no.2). In particular, one realises how the ever-inventive Bach explores different dance movements in each of the Partitas.

Ibragimova, still in her 20s, already has a reputation for her interpretation of Bach. Her playing is poised, intense, yet sonorous and not overtly demonstrative, and one feels that she is really at one with her instrument, and that there are no technical barriers to expressing what she wants. However, even for her, the pressure of performing solo in this cavernous venue (as well as the close presence of TV cameras) may have taken its toll, as she suffered a brief memory lapse in the opening Allemande of the Second Partita, and decided calmly to start again from the beginning. Despite this, she brought a lovely sense of phrasing to this movement. The Courante was light and the dotted-rhythms had a springy step, and the Sarabande was introspective and elegiac. The Gigue was taken at a whirlwind pace, perhaps a little too fast, but one could not but marvel at the litheness of her playing. She launched into the Chaconne in a bold and determined manner, yet it was never heavy, and full of transparency and colour. Her approach was less architectural and more about the flow of the music, moving seamlessly from one variation to the other. In particular, she brought an expansiveness in the central major section, and the arpeggios felt wonderfully spontaneous.

Personally, the climax of the evening came in the magnificent fugue of the Third Sonata, which is one of Bach’s ingenious creations where at the half-way point, the fugue is reversed. Ibragimova took it at a thoughtful pace, signalling each fugue entry yet managing to capture the music’s larger arc and its lyricism as well. She also brought out the polyphonic writing in both the opening Adagio and the third movement Largo, and capped it off with a speedy and nimble Allegro finale.

After a longish pause, during which some members of the audience left (no doubt to catch their last trains), Ibragimova reappeared to conclude her Bach cycle. She seemed more relaxed and liberated in the E major Partita, which opens with a sunny and lively Prelude that was dispatched with sparkling brilliance. Here, allemandes and courantes are replaced by galant French dances – the Loure, the well-known Gavotte, a pair of Menuets and the Bourrée. Her playing was fluid and elegant although I think she could have emphasized the actual dance rhythms a little more. She rounded up the performance with a sprightly final Gigue.

Over the two evenings, I thought the solo Bach in the Albert Hall worked better than expected. Ibragimova drew us into her sound world and I found it an immersive experience. No doubt her interpretation of these masterpieces is constantly evolving and I look forward to hearing her again a few years.

****1