The six sonatas for clavier and violin were composed sometime during his years in Cothen and represent a perfect balance of light and dark: three are in major keys, three in minor ones. We will listen to No. 4 in c minor, available on my cd Orpheus’s Lyre with violinist Julija Zibrat . Notice that even though it is in the "dark" key of c minor, there is infectious joy in the final fugal movement.
The six partitas and sonatas for solo violin were completed by 1720 but not published until 1802. Even then, they were largely ignored until the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim (dear friend of Robert and Clara Schumann and Brahms) started performing these works. They are fiendishly difficult, requiring both consummate technical prowess and the utmost soulful expression. Brahms himself was so bowled over by the Chaconne in d minor that he transcribed it for left hand alone at the piano in an effort to re-create the technical demands for a keyboard player.
I listened to Itzhak Perlman’s recording for about a decade almost every week. Among my many favorite recordings are Rachel Podger and Hilary Hahn, but my favorite recording ever is Morimur by Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble. You must buy a version where you can read the exhaustive liner notes, however to truly appreciate what this recording does. Inspired by the doctoral dissertation of German scholar Helga Thoen, the ensemble recreates the inner relationships between the Lutheran chorales on death and hope with the music Bach wrote for solo violin in the aftermath of his wife’s sudden death. The ultimate piece superimposes fragments of these chorales on top of the extraordinary Chaconne, and the effect, for me, is simply stunning. Listen to it in the dark with a single candle burning to achieve the optimal effect, one that might just bring you hope on the darkest of days.
The six suites for unaccompanied cello were most likely composed during the period 1717–23, when Bach served as director of music (Kapellmeister) at Cothen and during the time in which he met and married Anna Magdalena, an accomplished singer and cellist. Like the violin partitas and sonatas, these suites for unaccompanied cello are remarkable in how they achieve the effect of sounding polyphonic even though they contain only a single musical line. After an opening prelude, each suite consists of a standard Baroque dance suite (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue) plus an additional pair of dances (minuets, bourrees or gavottes). They have been described as “ a dance of God”.
Though ubiquitous ( and even required!) now, the cello suites were scarcely known and rarely publicly performed until Pablo Casals introduced them to the world in the early 20th century.
We will sample performances by YoYo Ma (modern cello), Anner Bylsma (period instrument and Baroque performance practice) and arrangements by Edwin Huizinga (violin) and Bill Coulter (guitar).
For a meditation on how so much beauty is lost on us and a call to attention, see the videoclip of Joshua Bell in the subway: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UM21gPmkDpI