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When Bach Laid Bare His Own Soul

Jennifer Koh
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

ON the cover of his recent recording of Bach’s partitas and sonatas for unaccompanied violin Sergey Khachatryan is shrouded in darkness, head tilted back, eyes raised piously and hands pressed together above his instrument. The image is an apt representation of the reverence that musicians, scholars and listeners often bring to a discussion of these monumental works. 

Bach wrote the three sonatas and three partitas, which were probably never performed in public during his lifetime, over a span of some 17 years in the early 18th century. The set “almost seems like a prayer book,” said the violinist Jennifer Koh.

“There is something incredibly personal about it,” she added. “It feels like a lifetime’s journey.”

Ms. Koh will play all six works on Sunday afternoon in a recital at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, presented by the Miller Theater. Brave violinists with exceptional stamina occasionally venture this feat, a daunting challenge, given the music’s emotional depth and technical hurdles.

Bach, a keyboard and organ virtuoso, also played the violin professionally at the Weimar court as a young man, and later in his career he often performed as violinist with the ensembles he led. He “played the violin cleanly and penetratingly,” according to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

German violinist-composers began writing polyphonic works for solo violin in the mid-17th century. Bach is thought to have been influenced by musicians including Johann Paul von Westhoff, a prominent Weimar violinist and favorite of Louis XIV; he published a set of solo violin partitas in 1696. Westhoff incorporated techniques like bariolage, a fast alternation between static and changing notes, which Bach also used to create contrapuntal textures. But Bach’s set far surpassed any previous attempts in the genre in terms of imagination, complexity and profundity.

Structurally the pieces adhere to Baroque norms. Bach’s four-movement sonatas reflect the four-movement church sonata (sonata da chiesa), and his partitas offer the stylized dance movements of the chamber sonata (sonata da camera). Bach blended the solo line and the accompaniment into one part, writing multiple, independent voices that unfold simultaneously. The four-voice fugues in the sonatas should sound as if they were being played by different violinists.

Some have suggested that the six works convey a religious narrative, with the G minor Sonata representing, say, the Christmas story and the C major Sonata the Resurrection. Others have interpreted the monumental Chaconne, the approximately 15-minute movement that concludes the Partita No. 2 in D minor, as an expression of the Holy Trinity, with the opening D minor section representing the Father, the ensuing D major section the Son and the concluding D minor section the Holy Spirit.

While not all performers and scholars analyze the set in light of Bach’s religious beliefs (he was a practicing Lutheran), it would probably be hard to find a violinist who hasn’t grappled with the music’s profound spirituality.

For Ms. Koh, who interprets the six pieces in a broader spiritual sense instead of specifically religious terms, the mighty Chaconne — a series of 64 variations on a stately four-bar, triple-meter dance theme — is “the heart of the cycle.” The movement is thought to have been Bach’s memorial to his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach, who died in 1720.

The Chaconne has transfixed listeners for centuries. In a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms wrote: “On one staff, 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.”

The Chaconne “is the most human” part of the set, Ms. Koh said, adding, “It feels like this constant struggle to reach transcendence.” The transition into the Adagio of the Sonata No. 3 in C, coming directly afterward if the works are played in order, is a “kind of acceptance of humanity,” she said. She described the first movement of that sonata as “the most tragic C major I’ve ever heard.”

Others of Bach’s cycles for solo instruments, like the six partitas for keyboard, are sometimes played and recorded in varying orders. But if the six violin sonatas and partitas are to be performed complete, it is vital to perform them in the sequence Bach specified, Ms. Koh said, calling the set “an incredible musical arc.”

Ms. Koh heard Nathan Milstein, who died in 1992, perform the D minor partita when she was 9, and she describes it as a formative experience. Milstein’s searing 1975 Deutsche Grammophon recording of the set remains a benchmark, along with other 20th-century recordings like Arthur Grumiaux’s beautifully sweet-toned, soaring interpretations for Philips in 1961 and Jascha Heifetz’s intensely expressive rendition for RCA Victor in 1952. Mr. Khachatryan, Julia Fischer, Rachel Podger, Gidon Kremer and Christian Tetzlaff are among the younger generation who have contributed distinctive recordings.

Ms. Koh would like to record the sonatas and partitas. But instead of presenting them as a complete cycle, she will probably pair individual works with contemporary pieces, as she has been doing in her solo recitals in the Miller Theater’s Bach and Beyond series. Many prominent instrumentalists never play Bach’s music, which is nerve-rackingly exposed, for an audience. Ms. Koh, who has performed the sonatas and partitas separately on various occasions, said the works are so naked, visceral and personal that she hesitated for a long time before deciding to play any of them in public.

She finds it poignant, she said, that Bach didn’t write the set for a particular commission or performance. As an artist, she added, “you need to create and compose.”

“It doesn’t matter if it pays,” she said. “At the end you do it because you love it in every fiber of your being. There is something so beautiful to me that Bach just needed to write this.”