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Friday, September 30, 2011

Johann Sebastian Bach, "Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin"

Johann Sebastian Bach
"Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin"
Philips (1961)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

You'll recall when we were looking at the Brandenburg Concertos, we learned that Bach was a virtuosic talent on the harpsichord and organ. Well guess what: Bach wasn't a slouch when it came to the violin either. Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin demonstrate both his talent for playing, along with his genius for composition.

Part of understanding that genius is understanding that composers just didn't write pieces for solo violin at that point in history. As Moon points out, the instrument is rarely used for solo pieces because as a melodic instrument, it works best with others providing a harmony. Bach shrugged off this logic.

It's important to realize that this isn't a Charlie Daniels album. Four of the six pieces are in a minor key, which lends support to the theory that Bach wrote the album as a memorial to his first wife. The three partitas are built on a series of Baroque dances, but these aren't jaunty numbers.

Although each of the pieces are built from movements that are variations of a common theme, the partitas emerge more variable than the sonatas because they're composed as different dances, and therefore follow a less orthodox structure than the sonatas. I'd personally recommend the partitas for this reason, but the sonatas are equally beautiful.

The partita that stands out amongst critics, and rightfully so, is the fourth piece on this collection, Partita no. 2 in D minor. This particular partita is comprised of five movements; an Allemanda, Corrente, Sarabanda, Giga and Ciaconna. The first four movements are each a style of dance popular during Bach's day, but the last is where the attention belongs. The Ciaconna (more commonly known as the Chaconne, in French) was a popular form that allowed a composer to draft several variations on repeated harmonic progressions, and Bach does as such here. The movement is longer than the previous four combined, and implements every aspect of violin playing known during Bach's era, spread over a triptych layout (one variation is that the middle section is in a major mode). Regardless of your grasp on Baroque era classical music, the Ciaconna is a superb and enthralling listen thanks to its constant shifts. I may be easily impressed, but allow Brahms to explain his enjoyment: "If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."

As Brahms' blown mind might hint, the Ciaconna is still among the most difficult movements composed for solo violin, and many believe Bach wrote the piece for his own performance, rather than trust another player. Due to its complexity, it is often a required piece at violin competitions across the world. One piece of advice for anyone who doesn't normally listen to classical: Don't listen to all six pieces in one sitting. Altogether they add up to nearly two hours of listening, and if the listener grows bored, it could easily run together, which would ruin the individuality of each piece.

INTERESTING FACT: Arthur Grumiaux, the violinist on this recording (a Belgian, not French as suggested by Moon), owned a Stradivarius violin that had been commissioned for a "General Dupont" in 1727. The violin is currently on loan to virtuoso Jennifer Koh.

Partita no. 2 in D Minor-Ciaconna pt. 1

Partita no. 2 in D Minor-Ciaconna pt. 2

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