A s I began to learn these Sonatas and Partitas when I was young, I first looked at this one and I thought of it as a great, white, snow-capped mountain. And, then, here was another wonderful white mountain. And another one… Six beautiful white mountains. But with the passing years and as my understanding of them grew—as I was able to stand back and benefit from the perspective—I came to see them in a new light. The glistening white violin Sonatas and Partitas [BWV 1001-1006] are like the white callosities on the head of a giant whale. What Bach created in these works is far bigger [than we might first imagine, or than we can ever really fathom]. Each is a part of one giant, living thing.”
Nicholas Kitchen, pre-concert remarks, Park University, 19-FEB-2009.
O n the east coast of New Zealand, the Whangara people believe their presence there dates back a thousand years or more to a single ancestor, named Paikea, who escaped death when his canoe capsized by riding to shore on the back of a whale.”I t was exquisite and devastating, Nicholas Kitchen’s performance of the Bach violin Sonatas and Partitas last evening, the culmination of a series of lectures and master-classes he had given over several days at Park University in Kansas City. The scope and scale of the 3-hour-plus concert were tremendous; the staggering panoramic beauty, pathos, and joy of it—these pieces that are so seldom heard all in one sitting.
Whale Rider, 2003.
K itchen’s thoughtful remarks prior to commencing each Sonata-Partita pair were almost as delightful as his playing. A further treat for us in the audience was to read as the pages of Bach’s original score were projected on a large screen behind Kitchen, as he played from a chest-high tripod-mounted laptop PC controlled by a foot-pedal-actuated Page/ScoreTurner.
F or ‘historically-informed performance’ (HIP) buffs, the experience was even more deeply fulfilling and illuminating because of this feature. The digitized Bach manuscript flowed by. Kitchen gently tapped the left-hand pedal button to return up-page for the repeats. We saw on the projection screen each and every one of Kitchen’s decisions in real-time, on-the-fly: his interpretations of every trill and mordent; his judgments about every appoggiatura—everything.
T he fluid lines and elegance of Bach’s own hand—the wavy thirty-second-note beaming; the capricious, dashed slurs and ligatures, whose agile ink-shapes belie Bach’s certitude and exuberance while his almighty pen flew across the manuscript paper: the music is ever so much more alive when we see this! For Kitchen to use the laptop and real-time m.s. projection in a concert performance was a gesture of great daring and generosity—especially for the many Conservatory professors and students in the audience. (Pray that MSwindows/MacOS does not crash! Pray that there is no electrical surge from a passing thunderstorm!) Hell, the feat that Kitchen accomplished was a soul-baring tour-de-force, the likes of which I had never seen before. It was like seeing the live video feed from a mountain-climber tackling K2, wearing a helmet-cam during the ascent. If ever a performance were to merit a standing ovation, this was it!
I n the past I’ve heard Nicholas perform as a member of the Borromeo Quartet, but in that ensemble setting I’d never adequately heard the delicacy of his technique nor comprehended the nuances of his interpretations—purely a limitation of my hearing acuity and of my attention, not a fault of Borromeos. The 1730 ‘Baron Vita’ Goldberg ‘Guarneri del Gesú’ does allow a range of gorgeous possibilities. And these Sonatas and Partitas do admit a wide range of emotional topography to cover. But this! The prodigious polyphony and multi-stopping. The louré/portato/cantabile that articulates each note without a hitch! The arpeggiati: traversing extreme rock and ice, solo, without a belayer. The ornamentation-world-without-end, amen. Desolation in minor keys, beyond any you have known. Joy in C major and E major, enough to heal almost anything. OMG. An air-tight exposition of the eternal dichotomy of Fate and human empowerment: how can they co-exist?
Y ou’re inexplicably caught up by a strong musical ‘current’ that pulls you into its emotional ‘undertow’ for three hours straight. You go ahead: you give in to it; you let go! You go with the Whale! If you count 16th notes “one-ee-and-ah, two-ee-and-ah”, most melody notes occur on ‘numerals’, not on ‘ands’. But in these Sonatas and Partitas we hear Bach (and Kitchen) pushing the melodic line onto ‘ands’, for the sheer effect that it has. Multiple lines—a solo instrument, manifesting multiple vocal lines and multi-voice leading simultaneously—especially with double-, triple- and quadruple-stops. One voice on the numeral-labeled downbeats; the other voice on upbeats. The ear and the mind follow each. The spontaneous effect is to cause us to recognize our own inner-voice/conscience, in dialogue with our conscious ego. Neither has a dominance or superior power; both are legitimate and necessary parts/aspects of the ‘whole’ self. At least that’s what Kitchen’s interpretation of Bach’s figuration does to me as I listen… Maybe you, too.
- Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 (Adagio; Fuga [allegro]; Siciliano; Presto)
- Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002 (Allemanda; Double; Corrente; Double; Sarabande; Double; Tempo di Bourée; Double)
- Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 (Grave; Fuga; Andante; Allegro)
- Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (Allemande; Corrente; Sarabanda; Giga; Ciaccona)
- Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 (Adagio; Fuga [alla breve]; Largo; Allegro assai)
- Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 (Preludio; Loure; Gavotte en rondeau; Menuet I; Menuet II; Bourée; Giga)
W hen I have presented this cycle before, I have found audiences very moved by the enormous architecture and profound emotional content of it—all drawn from the tiny ‘box’ of one violin.”
Nicholas Kitchen, program notes, Park University, 19-FEB-2009.
- Nicholas Kitchen website
- MusicKitchen.org music creativity website
- Nicholas Kitchen bio at Borromeo Quartet website
- Butt J, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge Univ, 1997.
- Butt J. Bach Interpretation: Articulation Marks in Primary Sources of J. S. Bach. Cambridge Univ, 1990.
- Geck M. Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work. Harcourt, 2006.
- Geiringer K. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of An Era. Oxford, 1966.
- Gerrard L. Whale Rider. (4AD, 2003.)
- Mendel A, Wolff C, David H, eds. The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. Norton, 1999.
- Wolff C. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. Norton, 2001.
- Sonatas and partitas for solo violin, page at Wikipedia
- DSM. Assistive technologies—AirTurn®, Tablet PCs, MusicReader®. CMT blog, 09-DEC-2008.
T his is the very womb and bed of Enormity.”
Ben Jonson, ‘Bartholomew Fair’, 1614.