Brief notes on Sonatas and Partitas without Bass for Solo Violin by J. S. Bach

We find Johann Sebastian Bach in the year 1720 as Kapellmeister in the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. A musician in early mid-career and much better known as an organist than as a composer, Bach busied himself during his six-year sojourn in Cöthen with writing some of his most important instrumental music (rather than the religious vocal compositions his work demanded in such profusion in other postings), while still performing the customary duties of a musical director in a secular court—playing, rehearsing, performing, and conducting—showing leadership as the head musician of the town. This period he spent in a relatively small town (centuries later to become a part of Communist East Germany, the town today with a population of approximately 30,000, its only claim to fame being it’s “Bach-rabilia”), must have allowed him a good balance of family life and work, and within the latter, the flexibility to write without the regular necessity to write for church services.

We know little of the history of the compositions said to be from this period, such as the solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas as well as the Cello Suites. We can well assume that they were first performed in Cöthen, most likely at court, by one of the court musicians. It is also possible though, that in the case of the solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, Bach himself gave their first presentation, even though he may have played these works on a keyboard instead. That he was a good violinist is a known fact and is prominently documented by his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. However, the richness and the fullness of their harmonies could, for their maximum effect, be much more successfully and easily executed on a keyboard rather than on a violin.

There is absolutely no record of the context in which the solo violin works were written, nor in what order they were composed, and modern thoughts on whether and how they were performed in the Cöthen years are mere speculation. In fact, while we believe them to have been composed in Cöthen, there is some reason to believe that Bach had already prepared these works while still in his previous post, in Weimar, and that 1720 was the year when he brought them together into a standard collection of six works. Unlike the Cello Suites, the manuscript autograph of these pieces, from Bach’s own hand, does exist–beautiful and elegant as well as meticulous–and it reminds this writer of yet another example of divinely inspired art whose glories seemingly transcend the capacities of any mere mortal soul, Caravaggio’s great painting in which the angel is guiding and dictating St. Matthew.

One wonders where Bach’s inspiration came from and how he must have felt after having completed such a brilliant output. These pieces are monumental achievements. They are masterpieces of composition, of course, but beside Bach’s brilliant innovations, they have a remarkable impact on each player and listener. At first hearing, the listener could be completely taken by the timelessness, the apparent contemporaneous feel, of each of these works, and in practicing them, one loses oneself in the passing of time. From a compositional perspective, the mastery of counterpoint and thematic writing has not lost its mystery; the perfection of the compositional techniques employed has superseded the passage of time. From all perspectives, these works are considered to be a pinnacle of compositional achievement. This is music that presents each listener and performer with an intense experience that cannot be replicated; requiring complete abandonment to the music and the workings of a mind so transcendent.

These compositions place huge organizational demands on a player, who is required to execute a multitude of voices, lines, melodies, counterpoint, and within all that convey the music’s character and impressions. At first, Bach’s individual line is simple, but then, when presented in multiple voices, complexities emerge, and it becomes the greatest of challenges to simultaneously render differing lines while retaining their underlying simplicity. A performer is required to carefully consider the organization of the left and right hands, remembering to pristinely present both the interlocking of musical lines as well as their independence from each other. The lines’ simultaneous independence and dependence of and with each other is at the core of these works. As a performer strives to simplify and organize the lines, that player’s ears and fingers are sharpened and trained, in the mental quest to present relationships between notes, lines, voices and sections that can be both coherent and/or in contrast with each other. Given the richness of Bach’s harmony as well as its purity, the greatest intonation accuracy is demanded, and anything less is blatantly distracting. The smoothness of the melodic line requires mastery of right hand technique, and complete control of its execution. This music requires more than just the possession of high-end technical skills; it demands a player’s coordination its many elements simultaneously, while handling them with both flair and seeming ease. And on top of all that, such technical virtuosity must largely be secondary to artistic priorities.

These pieces also present numerous interpretive challenges to a player. The main question is that of style. A Romantic reading of these works once predominated, with rubato, with wide vibrato, and “meaty” chordal executions a major element of many player’s interpretations. Some of the earliest extant recordings of the complete set are performed in this fashion. Since the renewed popularity and influence of Early Music presentation, the trend is perhaps moving in the direction of performances more in keeping with what we understand been the prevailing style during Bach’s lifetime. Some players go so far as to perform on instruments resembling those of the Baroque era, while others use only the Baroque bow while performing on “modern” instruments, or to use gut strings but with a “regular” or “modern” tuning. There are also those who make no visible modifications to their equipment, while still leaning in the direction of sound and interpretation that are closer to period instrument presentations, handling the instrument “as if” playing a period violin. There is no single “right” way to playing this music–conviction is the key. There is also a question of what to prioritize, what elements of this capacious music to bring to the fore (these choices being both technical and artistic, clearly). Because of the music’s many elements, its multiplicity of lines, plus demanding harmony and rhythms, a player must prioritize a particular element at certain times. For each performer, there are many decisions that must be made, both in planning and in “real-time,” during actual performance. These are issues to which do not lend themselves to one teachable “correct” answer or another, but they certainly need to be recognized and learned and internalized by each individual player. In the end, each performer must make well-informed choices. In truth, it seems to this performer that it is most important to honestly place this music in the context of a player’s life.

At the end of the day, these are some of the most beautiful pieces ever written. They are works that must be played with passion and not fear, that can be felt with hopefulness and not disappointment and hatred, and with adoration and respect. They are to be revered and played with a sense of love for their mysteries and glories, and not because a certain correctness is required. This is music that invokes compassion and has the capacity to reach the deepest and the most inner core of the each person’s soul. It is music that responds to each player’s individuality, reflecting that person’s inner life in ways that strikes a chord of recognition with another person, allowing both the player and listener the musical means for heightened self-examination. In this sense, each interpretation, in its elements that extend beyond learned aesthetics and academic presentation, is stemming from life itself, which is to say that every performance of these works will always be different, emphases and colorings and “meanings” constantly changing. This is indeed living music, that walks in concert with life’s movements.

When encountering such life-altering achievement, people often speak of “divine” inspiration, as though the work was a direct product of godly instruction. Still, this is music of human dimension. Bach was given to normal emotions, as we are aware of his frustrations in some career situations, and knowing of his huge family, we may imagine the demands such a home life placed on the man. He wrote the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin in a town of no particularly great claim, and they have been played ever since by very human musicians for “normal” listeners. Yet amidst all this normalcy is the humbling beauty of this music, a gift we gratefully accept.

 

©Midori Goto, 2017

Midori’s Winter Season Greetings

In respect for and in solidarity with those wishing for and needing solace, my friend Charles Danziger, and I have created the following greeting — Midori

 

 

 

Warner Classics to release Midori’s recording of Beethoven sonatas with Jean-Yves Thibaudet

On November 9th, Midori’s complete Beethoven sonatas cycle with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet will be released digitally worldwide by Warner Classics.

The physical CD release will follow in January 2023.

 

MIDORI’S 40TH ANNIVERSARY SEASON

The 2022-2023 season marks the 40th Anniversary of Midori’s professional debut, which took place on New Year’s Eve in 1982 with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta. She was 11 years old.

This season, Warner Classics will release a new recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas cycle with Midori and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, which the artists will perform in its entirety at Dartmouth College New Hampshire and Suntory Hall, Tokyo.

The Suntory Hall Beethoven sonatas cycle is part of a five-day celebration of Midori’s anniversary that also pays homage to Beethoven and to Midori’s mentor, the late Isaac Stern, whose significant birthdays fell during Covid lockdowns.

Over the course of the season, Midori, Lederlin and Biss perform Beethoven piano trios in London, Hamburg and Koln while Midori offers the Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Korngold and Detlev Glanert concertos with orchestras in Europe, the United States and Asia.

Two other longstanding passions of Midori – J.S. Bach’s six sonatas and partitas for solo violin and newly commissioned works – are combined in recital programs that Midori performs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Carnegie Hall, the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco and elsewhere in the United States, Canada and Europe throughout the 2022-2023 season.

Midori receives her 2020 Brahms Prize – – at last

(Above photo ©Andreas Guballa)

             

 

Midori was awarded the Schleswig-Holstein Brahms Society’s Brahms Prize in 2020 but the prize ceremony had to be postponed because of the Covid pandemic. The event took place on August 20, 2022 at St Bartholomaus Church in Wesselburren.

The jury honored Midori for her internationally celebrated interpretations of the works of Johannes Brahms as well as for the support she gives to the younger generation of artists and her special commitment in the spirit of humanity to projects promoting culture, not least as a UN Peace Ambassador. The prize is endowed with €10,000.

Alongside the prize ceremony Midori performed a program of solo works by J.S. Bach, Jessie Montgomery and John Zorn.

The first recipient of the Brahms Prize was Leonard Bernstein in 1988. Subsequent winners have included Yehudi Menuhin, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Sabine Meyer, Thomas Quasthoff, Christoph Eschenbach and the Thomanerchor.      

A profile of Midori published to coincide with the Brahms Prize event can be found in NDR Kultur

 

 

Stream Carnegie Hall’s Concert for Ukraine on-demand from June 8 for two weeks

Carnegie Hall’s all-star benefit Concert for Ukraine, in which Midori participated, is available to stream on-demand beginning Wednesday, June 8 at 2 PM EDT for two weeks.

 

Proceeds from the live event on May 23—including 100% of ticket sales—supported Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid nonprofit organization that provides urgently needed medical supplies to relief groups on the ground in Ukraine. Donations can still be made directly through Direct Relief’s website: www.directrelief.org/Carnegie-Hall

 

The stream can be accessed via:

Carnegie Hall website
Carnegie Hall+
YouTube Stream
Facebook Stream

 

Japan ICEP concert returns on June 16th following pandemic break

Three years after the last International Community Engagement Program (ICEP) took place in Japan, Oji Hall in Tokyo will be the site of a concert by the ICEP quartet, consisting of violinists Midori and Yebin Yoo, violist Erika Gray and cellist Noémie Raymond-Friset.

The musicians will also visit schools, hospitals and nursing homes in Japan, as they have traditionally done in June each year.

The Oji Hall program, taking place on June 16th will feature performances of Rachmaninov’s String Quartet No. 1 in G minor and Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major as well as a report on recent Music Sharing activities. Music Sharing is the non-profit organization under whose aegis the International Community Engagement Program has taken place since 2006.

For more information on the concert, please look on the facebook page.  More information on ICEP can be found here.

 

Midori to take part in Carnegie Hall’s “Concert for Ukraine” on May 23

 

 

Participants will include singer Michael Feinstein, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Evgeny Kissin, soprano Angel Blue, and a host of leading classical, jazz, opera and Broadway stars, as well as the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York, an ensemble that specializes in secular and sacred music from Ukraine.

100% of the proceeds will go to Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid nonprofit organization that provides urgently needed medical supplies to relief groups on the ground in Ukraine.

Please check the Carnegie Hall website for more details.

First live ORP in two years

In early May, Midori was delighted to hold her first live Orchestra Residencies Program (ORP) post-lockdown at Artis – Naples in Florida.

Founded in 2004, ORP is the collaborative musical and educational project in which Midori works with youth orchestras to provide meaningful experiences for the next generation of musicians and music lovers. During the Covid pandemic, she offered online masterclasses and workshops when travel and live appearances were not possible.

Midori’s Artis – Naples residency included intensive work with the Naples Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the Naples Philharmonic Youth Symphonia. She rehearsed with both ensembles, coached chamber music, presented workshops and led master classes over four days. She also gave presentations at several local schools.

The Artis – Naples residency concluded with a performance by Midori with the Naples Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and Naples Philharmonic Youth Symphonia led by Radu Paponiu and Gregg Anderson in a program that featured Spring Cadenzas, a commissioned work by American composer Derek Bermel written specifically for Midori’s Orchestra Residencies Program, and the third movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor.

A Message from Midori

The war in Ukraine is causing the loss of precious, innocent lives, and stealing the energies and the potential of those who remain and those who have fled the country, all for reasons and goals that cannot withstand the trials of decency and conscience.

Such acts are neither justifiable nor forgivable.

I stand in concert with my friends and colleagues in the international community in condemning this extreme act of human greed, aggression, and destruction, and calling for an immediate ceasefire.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to the people of Ukraine in their time of trial.