Monday, April 3, 2017

Baráti and Bach: Need I Say More?

Kristóf Baráti
Who: violinist Kristóf Baráti
What: an all-Bach program with the Three Sonatas for Solo Violin
When: Wednesday, April 5th at 8pm
Where: Temple Ohev Sholom at N. Front Street between Seneca and Emerald Streets in uptown Harrisburg
Why: You have to ask?

For those who remember Kristóf Baráti's performance from January, 2015, you'll know why this is a performance not to be missed. If you need convincing, listen to this brief clip of him playing the slow movement from Bach's C Major Sonata (the third of the three) at the Verbier Festival last year, on the violin he will be playing here in Harrisburg, a Stradivarius named the “Lady Harmsworth” Strad, considered one of the finest instruments Stradivarius ever made (and on loan from the Stradivari Society in Chicago).
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There is a YouTube clip of him playing all three of the sonatas on this week's program, but I've placed it at the end of the post: in this case, rather than familiarizing yourself with the music – and all of the music – you can hear live at the concert, I'd suggest waiting until the performance to experience not only the live performance of it (even though this was recorded live at a single concert) but the sweep of these three works as an entity. If you're not familiar with them, they could far exceed what you might expect from sitting there, listening to a single violinist playing over an hour's worth of some of the most amazing music ever conceived for the instrument.

This will be the first of three engagements for Baráti in Central Pennsylvania this week. After Wednesday's program, Baráti will give a master class at Messiah College on Thursday at 4pm, and this weekend he will perform the Khachaturian Violin Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina at the Forum (Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm; with a pre-concert talk by Truman Bullard an hour before each concert) – the concert also includes Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12.

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Sometimes, you discover something on-line that renews your faith in the internet (or at least in YouTube). Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts and instigator of the latest Artist-in-Residence with Market Square Concerts and the Harrisburg Symphony (where he is also, not coincidentally, the concertmaster), describes how this week's concerts came about:

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Sirotin admits he had discovered Baráti’s playing purely by accident. One of his Messiah College students had been working on a rather complex Bach fugue and so Sirotin turned to YouTube for a few good examples of live performances of that particular work.

“I came across Kristóf’s video from Moscow Conservatory Grand Hall, which is where I went to school and performed myself 20 years ago,” he said. “I really liked Kristóf’s performance of Bach and decided to look around for some more of his performances. I found that, in addition to his wonderful sense of style and musicality, he is also a remarkable virtuoso who performs some of the most technically difficult works for violin with charm, ease and flair very rarely found these days.”

(read Lori Myers' complete article in The Burg here.)
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Here is the fugue from the G Minor Sonata, an excerpt from that Moscow recital Peter mentioned recorded in 2008.

(If you're not familiar with the fugue, think of it as a conversation between a number of people – two, three, or four, rarely more – in which a topic, the subject, is first mentioned by one person and then taken up in turn by the others, sometimes adding their own opinions or comments, sometimes going "off-topic" before returning to the subject. While it's considered a very academic form where composers tend to show off what they know – one wag defined it as a piece where the voices enter one after the other as the audience leaves one after the other – there can be a great deal of variety and drama if the performer knows how to bring it off.)

Listening to Baráti is one thing – and I've rarely heard Bach played so well – but given the hype often afforded to musicians who lack the ability to stand still, whose gyrations are often considered by the audience as a sign of their intense involvement, that the level of performance is the direct equivalent to the amount of sweat produced, this man may come as a revelation to you, someone who allows you to focus on one thing: the music.

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What exactly are these pieces, anyway?

Bach in 1748
First of all, Johann Sebastian Bach – now regarded as one of the greatest composers in classical music – wrote a set of six “Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin” which are labeled in the catalogue as BWV.1001 through 1006 (BWV in this case standing for “Bach's Works Catalogue” which was first organized as recently as 1950). They consist of three alternating sonatas and, not surprisingly, partitas which would seem self-explanatory, though Bach never used the term “partita” for these suites.

The sonatas are all four-movement pieces in a slow—fast—slow—fast pattern, and since the second movement of each is a fairly monumental fugue, each fugue is prefaced by an equally monumental prelude, just like those 48 preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier but on a grander scale. Think also of the famous Prelude and Toccata in D Minor or most of the various organ fugues Bach composed, each usually prefaced by a prelude which manages to set the tone and display the performer's abilities as well as the composer's talent for creating music that seems almost improvisatory, free-form music made up “on-the-spot.” In fact, Bach was perhaps best known in his days as an improvisor at the organ. Fortunately for us, he managed to write down a great deal of music, too (if you figure these violin pieces are #1,001 in the catalogue).

The partitas are all multi-movement dance suites, fairly loose collections of various dances of the day (after an initial prelude, a sarabande, an allemande, a courante, various gavottes and gigues among others). In fact, the word “partita” was synonymous with “suite” (as was, confusingly, the term “overture”). So why did Bach call his suites for solo cello and for the keyboard “suites” and those for the violin “partitas”? The fact is, he didn't. He tended to use partia for these pieces, which looks like a misprint when we run across it (the German adaptation of the Italian term: the plural was partien). But in actuality, if we see the original manuscript written in Bach's own hand, the title page is entitled Sei Solo / a violino senza basso accompagnato or “Six Solo / for violin without accompaniment of the basso continuo” (which was the standard accompanimental combination of a harmony-playing instrument like a keyboard or even a lute with a bass “melody” instrument like a cello, double-bass, or bassoon to reinforce the important bass-line of the harmony).

In 1700, Arcangelo Corelli had published a set of sonatas for violin that could be accompanied in various ways or played as solos – here, Bach said specifically “without accompaniment.” Terminology was fairly vague in those days: keep in mind, also, a “trio sonata” was really played by four people – the two “melody” parts could be played by anything that fit the range (two violins, say, or two flutes or perhaps a combination of each) and the accompaniment was usually a harpsichord with a cello; in other words, four musicians playing three lines of music. (To make it more confusing to the modern musician, the “continuo” part consisted of a bass line (the cello part) with a bunch of numbers under each note which created a kind of code to the keyboard player what the other pitches would be to fill in the harmony. While it is often said the harpsichordist was “improvising” his part, it was always within a controlled environment: the numerical code was very precise and merely a kind of abbreviation on the part of the composer.)

The pattern of the sonata that Bach used here – the slow—fast—slow—fast combination – was known as a sonata da chiesa or “church sonata” (more precisely, an instrumental work suitable for use in the church), as opposed to a sonata da camera or “chamber sonata,” one intended only for the music room (there were no public concert halls in those days – in fact, the last of Bach's sons, Johann Christian Bach, is credited with organizing the first series of public concerts in which tickets were sold to anybody who wanted to (and could afford to) buy them: in his father's youth, the audience usually consisted of the composer's employer, an aristocrat, with his family and friends and other members of the court, but not what we today would call “the public”).

So, in a sense, these three sonatas are three versions of the same pattern: the prelude followed by the fugue; the lyrical slow movement as a contrast to the fugue's complexity; a lively finale that was structured like a dance movement but never referred to as one (labeled “Allegro,” not “Gigue” – whatever one might dance to these finales, dancing was much frowned upon in the church and so even the whiff of a dance by implying it in the title would not be allowed).

But what variety Bach manages to achieve in these works!

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Bach as a Young Man (perhaps)
It would be Bach's habit, throughout his life, to write “collections” of works almost encyclopedic in nature: 24 Preludes and Fugues for the Clavichord (the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier), one pair in each key, but all different ways of solving the problems inherent in writing fugues, not to mention prefacing them. There is the “Musical Offering,” a collection of settings and especially of canons based on a strange theme supplied the composer by Frederick, King of Prussia (an amateur flutist and composer, he may have been King Frederick “the Great” but he was only composer Frederick the Adequate, not that anyone would tell him that to his face, especially Bach's second-oldest son, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, who was one of his court composers and further down on the pay scale because the king, frankly, didn't care much for his new-fangled style).

The G Minor Sonata: 1st Movement
But these are early works of Bach. We know he finished them by 1720, judging from the autograph manuscript (there are other, later copies written out by some students of his and also his second wife, Anna Magdalena). This was the year Bach's first wife, Maria Barbara, died; he married Anna Magdalena late the following year. In 1723, they moved to Leipzig where Bach became the cantor (that is, music director, organist and teacher) of the city's churches, centered at the St. Thomas Church. From here on until his death in 1750, Bach's primary function was to produce the cantatas performed in the church service, and so his need for instrumental music declined if not, comparatively, vanished.

Yet before that, Young Bach held several court posts similar to those held by most composers in Germany (or what passes for Germany which didn't exist as a nation-state until the late-19th Century): he was responsible for the instrumental court music for the Duke in Weimar in 1703 (though he did supply the occasional cantata here and there) where he stayed until falling out of favor in 1717, moving from there to the smaller court of the Prince of Anhalt in Köthen, remaining there until he got the job in Leipzig.

1720 is generally the date given to these six Sonatas and Partitas, though Bach wasn't the kind of composer to sit down and say “I'm going to write six works for solo violin and they're going to be so great, you won't believe how great they're going to be!” It might be more accurate to say he “compiled” them in 1720 and copied them out. We know the music for the fugue of the G Minor Sonata existed in 1714 when one of Bach's students copied out a fugue in G Minor for violin and continuo though one could argue which one is the original and which is the arrangement.

So let's point out Bach was a frequent recycler of his own music. As a case in point, there's the cantata he wrote for the opening of the town council in Leipzig in 1731, which we know as No. 29. The sinfonia is an arrangement for organ, strings, oboes, trumpets and timpani of the Preludio opening the E Major Partita for solo violin, BWV.1006, generally given the date 1720 (whenever it might have actually been composed), something he'd already arranged for organ and strings for a wedding cantata in 1729. Incidentally, music from the opening choral movement of Cantata No. 29 would reappear in parts of the Mass in B Minor, another work Bach compiled rather than composed toward the end of his life. The lost St. Mark Passion, performed in 1731 and 1744, we know is a compendium of arrangements taken from various cantatas and oratorios.

One of Bach's outside-the-church responsibilities in Leipzig was the instrumental music for the Collegium Musicum, an official town ensemble of musicians who performed fairly regularly at Zimmerman's Coffee House (the town officially lacking either a concert hall or an opera house at the time). For these performances, Bach created his seven keyboard concertos, most of them being arrangements of earlier violin or oboe concertos written when he was in Weimar or Köthen (one of them being an adaptation outright of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto).

Another thing to point out is how publishing worked in those days. Generally, it didn't, at least as far as Bach was concerned. Music was fairly local, then, and often traveled around through hand-written copies made by students – there is the famous anecdote of Bach himself hand-copying his older cousin's forbidden collection of Pachelbel organ works when he was a teenager – and passed on to their students and so on. Usually, it was not sent to a central publishing company where it was engraved and sold to the public.

When Bach died in 1750, his music library, the collection of his manuscripts, was divided among his various sons. Most of the major works were divided between the two eldest, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philip Emanuel, both respected if not always successful composers in their day. While much of Friedemann's share was sold off to cover his drinking habit and various debts (especially by his widow) and subsequently lost (see the St. Mark Passion, mentioned above) and Carl Philip Emanuel's library disappeared in World War II when it was carted off by the victorious Soviet army only to be rediscovered in 1999 in a vault in Kiev, the solo violin pieces were part of the legacy given to one of Bach's youngest sons – only nine of Bach's twenty-one children survived him, by the way – Johann Christoph Friederich Bach, still a teenager when his father died. He became a “keyboard artist” later that year at the Court of Bückeburg and nine years later became its music director, spending the rest of his life there until he died in 1795 leaving behind some 20 symphonies, numerous operas and oratorios curiously in the Italian style (though that was because of the Count's predilections, not his own).

When Friederich died, the manuscript went to his son Wilhelm Friederich Ernst Bach, the only grandson of Johann Sebastian to gain fame as a composer (all of Bach's sons, including Heinrich who today would be called a “special needs” child, composed; indeed, it's quite likely some of his daughters also composed). He had been music director (or kapellmeister) for the Prussian king, Friederich Wilhelm II, and met Robert Schumann in 1843. When he died at the age of 86 – Brahms was only 12 at the time – he was the last of the male descendants of Johann Sebastian Bach. His manuscripts, including Bach's Solo Sonatas and Partitas, went to his sister Christina Louisa Bach.

Then, in 1879, the original manuscript and two other copies became part of the collection of the Bach Geschellschaft and can be seen at the Berlin State Museum.

Bach in Today's Pop Culture
The first published edition of the Sonatas and Partitas came out in 1802, but we now know it was so full of errors, it must have been prepared from a different copy. Remember, Bach was virtually forgotten except by composers: while Mozart studied the Well-Tempered fugues (in the hand-written copy he'd been given, no one bothered with the preludes) and the Mendelssohns, both Felix and Fanny, could play all of them from memory as children, little was otherwise known of him until Mendelssohn, then nineteen years old, conducted that legendary concert performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829.

(The expression about "The 3 Bs" originated as a marketing ploy by conductor Hans von Bülow, a friend of Brahms', in the 1870s.)

Even though they were available in 1802, no violinist took them up until Joseph Joachim started to play them (he also brought Beethoven's violin concerto into the repertoire after it had been ignored following its premiere). Curiously, Joachim's friend Brahms arranged the great Chaconne from the D Minor Partita for “piano left-hand,” an experience which prompted him to write to Clara Schumann in 1877: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. 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.”

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Considering the amount of Bach's music that has been lost, one way or another, we are lucky not only to have these Sonatas and Partitas but to have them written down in his own hand!

But, one is tempted to ask, where did they come from? What prompted him to write them?

For generations, these works seemed to be the starting-point for virtuosic works composed for solo violin starting in the 19th Century. After all, we know where the line of influence went – as Baráti showed us in his 2015 recital with works also by Ysaÿe and Bartók. But what “influenced” Bach to write his?

Curiously, one of the first extant such pieces was by the Dresden-born violinist Johann Paul von Westhoff who wrote a number of suites for solo violin in the 1680s, some were published and others were lost, but more significantly a set of six partitas for solo violin which was published in 1696.

the Gigue from Westhoff's Partita No. 1 for Solo Violin
That didn't keep Westhoff's music from disappearing from the musical landscape: while some of his music resurfaced in the mid-19th Century, these solo partitas weren't rediscovered until 1971, a copy that indicated, though published in 1696, they may have existed years earlier. (See, for example, the opening of a “chromatic gigue” (in 9/4) with its odd staff notation.)

The question is, did Bach know Westhoff or his music? Well, yes...

In 1703, Johann Sebastian Bach joined the musicians at the Duke of Saxe-Weimar's court in Weimar where one of the violinists was the famous Johann Paul von Westhoff, appointed in 1699 and who remained there until his death in 1705. So for two years they would not only have known each other, they would have worked together.

We tend to forget that Bach was more than a composer and organist. In his youth, he was quite a good violinist which at least gave him the ability to understand what should go into a virtuosic violin piece whether he could actually play it himself or not. As conductor of the weekly cantatas at St. Thomas, Bach often led from the 1st Violinist's seat (the concertmaster) and his son Carl Philip Emanuel wrote that "in his youth and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord" which was the usual place conductors in those pre-modern conductor days sat.

There is no record of his own Sonatas and Partitas ever being performed – by him or anyone else – so he may have written them purely as “abstract” works, the same way he set about codifying his possible solutions to compositional problems like the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier (intended as teaching pieces for his children) much less the Art of Fugue or even a single work like the “Goldberg” Variations. It should be noted that his manuscript copy lists the Sei Solo as Volume I – Volume II was the set of six suites for solo cello which are not called partitas and which, even more curiously, seem to have no reason to exist: after all, the cello was not considered a “melody” instrument; it played the bass-line in the continuo! Did Bach have a cellist among his colleagues who could play these? But that's another discussion for another time, perhaps...

Regardless, the great line of solo violin music might as well begin with Bach since those influenced by him down to the present day would never have known Westhoff's music or even the violin sonatas (with accompaniment) by the likes of other great violinists who were Westhoff's contemporaries, particularly Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Bieber and Johann Joseph Walter.

It should also be mentioned that there is some considerable proof that the famous “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” for organ – a quite early work of Bach's – was originally a work for solo violin. Its manuscript has not survived – can we blame Wilhelm Friedemann for that? – but if so, it predates the 1720 date given to the Sonatas and Partitas. Perhaps there were other works out there as well which Bach might have used to recycle into other works.

(I have to admit I'm not sure where Paganini's inspiration for his 24 Caprices for Solo Violin came from. He composed them in groups between 1802 and 1817 (other sources say 1805 to 1809) which would coincide with that first publication of Bach's Sonatas & Partitas in 1802. But did Paganini know them? There's certainly no record of him playing them that I'm aware of. For that matter, given the incredible school of violin playing that centered around the likes of Corelli and Tartini, were there comparable works for solo violin (that is, without accompaniment) that he might have used as models? The Caprices are intended as, basically, study pieces - etudes, in that sense - but it seems unfair not to mention them in some context, here. Well, perhaps a project for yet another rainy day...)

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That said, anyone who has never heard these works before may simply wonder how an instrument with only four strings can play the sheer amount of notes not to mention the number of musical lines we call “polyphony.”

True, you can play two pitches on two adjacent strings – something called double-stops – but triads would involve three strings (since you can't play two notes on one string), and a four-note chord is challenging enough even if one of those notes involves an “open” (or un-stopped) string.

The ability of a modern bow to cover three or four strings, though, is a physical challenge. It wasn't until fairly recently the “baroque bow” came into use again, since the bow-hair is less tight than a modern bow and could “bend” a little to accommodate the strings.

The real challenge is playing not just the number of notes at one time, but keeping musical lines going over a period of time where one is a melody and the other an accompaniment or, as in a fugue, where there might be two or three independent lines moving contrapuntally (each one its own melody).

There was a passage in the Bach Chaconne that Baráti performed the last time he was here in which he played three notes simultaneously in which I clearly heard an upper voice at one intensity, a lower voice at a lesser intensity, being the bass-note, and a middle note of an intensity somewhere in between. Voicing chords like this on a piano is difficult enough, but on a violin, two notes voiced differently is technique. Three notes, each one voiced differently, seems an impossibility. I wasn't sure I was hearing it right but then, in my peripheral vision, I saw two or three heads pop up perhaps in similar disbelief; two at least I know were violinists.

So here is Kristóf Baráti, alone on the big stage of the Bolshoi Hall in Moscow – I do wish there was a better way of translating bolshoi than just saying “Big Hall” – playing all three of Bach's Sonatas for Solo Violin: the Sonata No. 1 in G Minor; the Sonata No. 2 in A Minor; and the Sonata No. 3 in C Major.

- Dick Strawser

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