In this episode, I continue the examination of Bach’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord and in #5, I see Bach stretching his abilities to invent as a composer. The keyboard part still gets a very fair showing in the partnership between the two instruments, but the violin part for me here really shines as something special. For one, it’s a real violin part, offering in the third movement double stopping throughout which for me really shows off one of the things only a stringed instrument can do that woodwinds, for instance can’t do: play harmony. Coupled with this, the writing for the keyboard part for me really feels grounded in one choice of instrument: the harpsichord. I often do not get caught up too much in the idea of Bach’s orchestration, because I don’t think the small details mattered to him as much. That’s a bold thing for me to say, because I don’t have anything beyond a hunch about that. Part of my opinion is informed by Bach’s world and the need to be pragmatic. We have enough evidence of Bach arrangements (such as Brandenburg 4 re-written for harpsichord with recorders) to see that the particular color of an instrument may not have had a significance beyond association. Bach did choose instruments for their association, but I can’t say that we’ll ever have evidence that he chose them for their color or preference in timbre. In Episode 29, I used the example of Gould’s recording with Sir Yehudi Menuhin. While I was not a fan of the vibrato style employed by Mr. Menuhin, Gould’s performance on piano I think was interesting. If I take Bach’s 2nd Orchestral Suite (BWV 1067) that features the transverse flute, I could point to the recording by Ensemble Sonnerie that substitutes the oboe. For me, it’s wholly convincing.
But in this sonata, to me the tonal quality of the harpsichord makes so much sense when we look at the third movement; we also have what I call the badass motive in the fourth movement that seems like it was conceived especially for the violin: it takes off in an upward climb, then right when we get to the top, it comes back down dramatically into the lower reaches of the violin’s gamut. The first entrance of the theme goes down to a middle C, which would technically be possible on some flutes, but the volume would be so low we’d likely not hear it; consequently later, it goes lower, and we couldn’t hear it at all. It’s a line that seems custom-fit for the violin in terms of range, style, and the ability of the performer to “do something” interesting with it.
One further example is in the opening movement that starts with solo keyboard, and the violin part “sneaks” in on the middle C note. To be sure, musical notes don’t “sneak”; it’s performers who do human things, like sneak. The melody and harmony presented by the keyboard player is nice and pleasant and there’s no real need for a second voice; but then there it is, then it’s taken up immediately by the keyboard player as countersubject to the opening line. The keyboard moves in quarter notes, the violin in slower notes, legato and particularly different than the keyboard part. You hear it, and the differences are idiomatic to the instruments themselves.
One issue that I touch upon is the idea of ornamentation. In the Koopman/Huggett collaboration, Mr. Koopman is not shy about adding flourishes. I make the point that maybe this is something the violinist could pick up too, but in that recording, Ms. Huggett sticks to the score more religiously. And that’s an important distinction, one of reading a score and performance practice. The best example we likely have is Corelli’s slow movements to this opus 5, which are written simply in slower notes. It wasn’t until we saw publication of “arrangements” of these pieces that performance practice may have differed dramatically with regard to a lot of notes being added to the original framework. I’d like to think that the opening movement of this sonata is ripe for such an interpretation, but unlike with Corelli’s opus, we do not have a published version of an alternative written-out. One might argue that Bach’s music doesn’t need that type of colorful addition; I’d still like to hear someone attempt it. The type of ornamentation that does take place in the recordings I highlight is all a little safer, once we get away from Koopman. We will hear the typical mixture of devices used around cadences. The interesting part which I exploit in the podcast is the opening of the second movement, with a theme that opens with two longer notes.