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BACH: Sonatas & Partitas

double CD - DDD - total time 2'17 - Released Feb 2000 - Auvidis/Naïve E 8678, Paris. (the following information is taken from the cd booklet)

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A musician can spend some of the most beautiful hours of his life with Bach's solo 'Sonatas and Partitas'. This is music that nourishes the soul directly and constantly stimulates the mind.

Photo: Isabelle Levy
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The original manuscript of the six works, written in Bach's hand and dated 1720, is entitled 'Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato'. The universality of the writing, however – the reach beyond the violin to other instruments – was already evident in the 18th century. There exists a manuscript from the time in which the entire cycle is transposed for the cello, there are lute and organ versions of the first fugue, the second Sonata and part of the third exist in keyboard versions probably made by the composer's son-in-law, and Bach himself arranged the entire third Partita for the lute as well as using its Prelude as an obligato organ part in two cantatas.

Then as now, it was the wonderfully harmonious spiritual and intellectual allure of these works that attracted instruments other than the violin. On a purely practical plane as well, there are elements in the writing of the Sonatas and Partitas that go beyond the solo violin and quite specifically seem to invite the lute to adapt this repertoire.

First of all, for the solo violin, Bach's polyphonic writing is often very suggestive. In a texture of three or four voices, he goes from one register to another giving elements of the different voices which the violinist and consequently the listener reconstruct inwardly into a polyphonic context as if the voices had sustained. This is a style of writing actually very close to the lute in the 17th century (the so-called, 'style brisé' of the French lutenists) and remained part of the lute's language as it evolved in the 18th. One important difference between the two instruments, however, lies in the fact that the lute can very often sustain the voices in different registers, whereas on the violin, of course, as soon as the bow has left the string, the sound only remains in the listener's imagination. This interior retaining of a note or musical line depends much on the violinist's intensity and skill. For instance, the opening Adagio of the first Sonata begins with a four-voice chord in which the lowest and highest voices are the most important. In order to convince the listener of the bass note's significance before leaving the fourth string with the bow, the violinist must play it in such a way that it remains in the listener's inner ear. He must, in effect, say 'remember this note, because it is important an will soon be connected with another bass note after a series of intervening notes in the upper voices. The lutenist must think exactly the same way regarding the relative importance of the notes he is playing, but the big difference lies in the fact that all strings can be played at once.

On the lute, of course, every note is left suspended in the air after it is plucked. Because of this, the lutenist must be just as careful as the violinist in connecting polyphonic voices through color and intensity, but the relative ease of the voices sounding together means that this complexity of 'imagined' polyphony is not nearly as demanding for the listener. The basic flowing and flowering of thicker textured passages if therefore brought to life in a more harmonious context.

A second aspect of these works that lends them to the lute lies in the nature of the bass lines. Whereas on a keyboard instrument the left hand is often tempted to do what the right hand does in terms of elaboration and figuration, in the solo violin writing the bass movement is much more conservative. An agitated bass line would be too much of a strain for the delicacy of the upper voices. The bass has clear melodic independence only in rare situations such as the unaccompanied opening theme of the Siciliana of the first Sonata or in the fugues where the subject will appear either alone in the bass or with a minimum of complement from the upper voices. Otherwise the bass serves primarily as a harmonic anchor without exaggerated melodic obligations. This suits the lute perfectly because it is the thumb of the lutenist's right hand that has full responsibility for playing the bass.

A third reason that seems to open the way for the lute to approach the Sonatas and Partitas on its own terms are the numerous examples where the music is conceived on such an abstract plane that the score already appears to be a kind of adaptation for the violin. As so often in Bach's instrumental writing, the music seems to come from beyond-occasionally far beyond- the instrument with which it is associated. In all music, a performer basically tries his best to coordinate the physical gesture of his hands with the musical gesture of the passage he is playing. In his way, technique and music combine into an organic unit. In the solo violin repertoire, on the other hand, it is almost impossible for the bow to respect the flowing horizontality of the musical texture while continually darting back and forth between the extremes of the instrument. Often enough, passages with nothing in the way of musical violence about them take on elements of a raging sea beating against a rugged coastline in a storm. The lute, on the other hand, moves inland to a more pastoral landscape. There are certainly passages of depth or incisive power as well as moments of heightened musical drama and intense activity, but all seems to take place in a perspective, encouraging the music to speak for itself. The generous resonance of the lute tempers the violinist's occasional fury.

Bach's own arrangement of the 'E major Partita, BWV 1006', has provided the basis for the version recorded here with only the slightest changes. Otherwise, all the lute versions are my own adaptations. In rethinking these works for the lute, harmonies have often been filled out and suggested or implied bass notes have been provided. It has hardly ever seemed necessary to add an independent complementary voice to polyphonic passages or to complete a melody that seemed fragmentary. In general, my approach has focused on looking for a "naturalness" of language, which doesn't in any way augment the complexity of the music but rather enhances its directness. Bach's student Johann Friedrich Reichardt in writing about the six solos for unaccompanied violin states that their composer often played them on the clavichord, adding as much in the nature of harmony as he found necessary. In so doing, he recognized the necessity of a sounding harmony, such as in compositions of his type (in their original form for violin) he could not fully achieve.'

It comes as no surprise that Bach would have chosen the clavichord for his own elaborations of these works; this is the keyboard instrument whose musical language – its colors, dynamics and subtlety of touch – most closely resembles that of the lute.

Hopkinson SMITH

Répertoire Magazine: Disk of the month. (Feb 2000)

CD 1

SONATA I BWV 1001 in G minor
    1. ADAGIO 3'42 - download in MP3 format (3.4Mb)
    2. FUGA 4'49 - download in MP3 format (4.4Mb)
    3. SICILIANA 2'37
    4. PRESTO 4'54
PARTITA I BWV 1002 in A minor original key in B minor
    5. ALLEMANDA 4'45
    6. DOUBLE 3'31
    7. CORRENTE 4'02
    8. DOUBLE 3'42
    9. SARABANDE 3'21
    10. DOUBLE 2'25
    11. TEMPO DI BOREA 3'15
    12. DOUBLE 2'27
SONATA II BWV 1003 in A minor I en la mineur
    13. GRAVE 4'02
    14. FUGA 8'14
    15. ANDANTE 4'38
    16. ALLEGRO 4'43

CD 2

PARTITA II BWV 1004 in D minor
    1. ALLEMANDA 5'00
    2. CORRENTE 2'51
    3. SARABANDA 3'11"
    4. GIGA 5'23
    5. CIACCONA 12'15
SONATA III BWV 1005 in C major
    6. ADAGIO 3'02
    7. FUGA 10'47
    8. LARGO 2'27
    9. ALLEGROASSAI 4'37
PARTITA II1 BWV 1006 in F major original key in E major
    10. PRELUDIO 4'52
    11. LOURE 3'34
    13. MENUET I 1'52
    14. MENUET II 2'28
    15. BOURRÉE 1'54
    16. GIGUE 2'12



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