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Review: Lara St. John

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The art work of the CD really equals those of many Pop CDs. With many closeups in the booklet one can't help thinking that she is using her looks for success (and many pop artists could use her looks!).

A closer look at her vitae reveals a strong reputation in the field of the standard repertoire for solo violin and co-operations with many famous orchestras, both within and outside of the United States. Her abilities and ambitions become apparent on her first recording dating back to 1996, on which she handles solo works by Bach.

The CD BACH WORKS FOR VIOLIN SOLO clearly demonstrates her love and preference for Bach and her new CD is once again dedicated entirely to this composer. Her debut can be characterised as a statement of intention. After all: Who else would dare to tackle this difficult repertoire with their debut? Especially since she is not content to hurry her way through the pieces. Instead, one can immediately notice the calmness shining through her interpretation sand the minuteness of her play. In the slow movements the listener meets a bacchanal and romantic St. John, who wants nothing to do with the approaches of current authentic music practice. On the other hand, her perfomance is intense and without any loss of concentration.
Already in the first movement (Allemande) of the second partita, she creates a gentle and calm romantic ambiance. Her personal approach can be characterised by beautiful timing and transitions. The warm sound of her instrument has been captured brilliantly by the recording team and it perfectly matches her interpretation, which can be said as well about the sense of space around the instrument. The only negative aspect one could mention is the somewhat bright-sounding reverb. The fast virtuoso passages are fine examples of St. Johns precision towards rhythm and intonation. While many soloists leave some notes unfinished intonationwise in faster passages, St. John is constantly striving for perfection. It's all there and it's on the right spot as well. The music gravitates around the last part of the second partita, the 15-minute Ciaconna. St. John puts so much intensity and personal grief into this movement, that she evokes the picture of a tortured romantic, who almost moves the listener to tears.

She starts off the first movement (Adagio) of the third sonata with a similiar ambiance as with the second partita. In the following Fuga she again lets her feelings run freely and combines this with precise playing. Her handling of the difficult double-stops leaves nothing to be desired. The Largo (third movement) ends with a virtuoso and energetically presented finale. Overall, this is a warmly recommended CD with St. John's freely distributed personal feelings leading the way, thereby rendering it a personal and highly intensive document.

Her fourth and poppy CD RE:BACH could hardly be more different. The album contains 15 pieces of pop music inspired by the music of Bach. Each track is a clear reference to a well-known Bach melody. St. John argues that Bach's music is so strong that it asks for different approaches.

So the purpose of this CD is not to re-invent Bach (as you might assume from reading its title), but rather as a tribute to the great master. St. John's aim is to put his music center stage, no matter what the musical context might be.
 She hereby brings Bach to the attention of lovers of pop-music as well. Assisting her is producer Magnus Fiennes, who handled arranging the pieces. His arrangements deal with different ensembles with a distinct leaning towards a pop-sound, including electric guitar and drums. Bach melodies are then woven into the new texture and mostly played by St. John.

Listeners accustomed to the classical genre will have to set aside all of their ideas abouth traditional sounds for a moment. On the other hand, this CD might not target the  traditional  classical  music  lover anyway. A more suitable target group would be those, who want to listen to Bach and as yet find Ton Koopman and Philippe Herreweghe just a little too hard too handle.

Whatever the case may be, the album once again demonstrates St. Johns expertise and relatedness towards Bach. She might just be a little less in  the focus in this production and the music she is playing is ultimately quite a bit less vituoso and ambitious. But she just as much manages to put her own feelings into the music and creates an exuberant romantic air. Just to give an example, the middle part of a violin concerto is used and some slower melodies, which have a distinct romantic feeling in their original version already. St. Johns style really fits these pieces. Still, there are a few pieces that are actually pretty demanding. Take »Bombay Minor«, which strongly reminds of Bach's works for solo violin. Her handling of this work can be compared to her first CD, only now we find famous Trilok Gurtu playing the tabla.

On top of this, the CD has its effects and little tricks. This means that apart from the acoustic instruments, there is a generous use of effects from the pop-genre. It is also a nice feature that St. John handles both violins on the track »Duetto«. This duet originates from cantata BWV 78 and was conceived for soprano and alt and continuo. All arangements can be said to be tasteful and that little bit of Bach only enriches their content. I'd like to recommend this CD to all pop music afficionados and classical enthousiasts, who would like to listen to Bach in a new fashion. A strong warning goes out to the fans of baroque tradition: Don't even get started on this one!

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