A rare treat by Jeremy Denk and Maria Wloszczowska
Theresa L. Kaufmann Auditorium, 92nd Street Y
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonatas for Keyboard and Violin No. 1 in B Minor, BVW 1014, No. 2 in A Major, BVW 1015, No. 3 in E Major, BVW 1016, No. 4 in C Minor, BVW 1017, No. 5 in F Minor, BVW 1018, & No. 6 in G Major, BVW 1019
Maria Wloszczowska (violin), Jeremy Denk (piano)
J. Denk, M. Wloszczowska (© Courtesy of 92nd Street Y Archives)
Of all major sonata cycles by J.S. Bach, by far the least frequently programmed is the six Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard. In my concert-attending career spanning more than five decades, I have heard those six wonderful pieces no more than three times and all three times with the same violinist, Pamela Frank. Twice she offered them with one of her favorite partners, Peter Serkin; the third time the program was to be played, he was no longer with us and Pamela offered “the Six” with another pianist in memory of Peter. Two of the performances took place at Theresa L. Kaufmann Auditorium.
And now, during the Bach-Mendelssohn Connection Festival organized at 92nd Street Y we had another rare chance to sample the music which we hear infrequently and usually only one at a time. I suppose that the only logical explanation for that illogical circumstance is that for violinists the pieces are perhaps not sufficiently virtuosic and that during the performance the glory would need to be shared with “the accompanist”. In case of the performance we heard as a part of the Bach-Mendelssohn Connection Festival, the situation was slightly different and one that happens infrequently: here it was Mr. Denk who enlisted the cooperation of the young Polish violinist he met in England and with whom he was impressed. He also suggested her attendance at the New York festival and once again we were able to hear these magnificent works played by the two equals.
The six Sonatas BVW 1014‑1019 or Sei Suonate a Cembalo Certato è Violino Solo, col Basso per Viola da Gamba accompagnata se piace as it was called by the composer, were most likely written in Cöthen perhaps as late 1723: they were prepared as a set in 1725. At that time Bach was most likely no longer interested in the medium of trio sonata, where originally two violin voices were assisted by the bass line in a contrapuntal manner.
We do not know why, when, or exactly how he hit on the idea of turning trio sonatas into sonatas for a single melody instrument with obbligato harpsichord, but it is entirely possible that such adaptations were done almost mechanically by simply allocating one of the upper parts to the right hand of the harpsichord. This process is analogous to the one that produced harpsichord concertos out of earlier violin concertos, and could easily have been done extemporaneously. It was evidently common practice in Bach’s circle; some of C.P.E. Bach’s trios also exist in versions for violin and harpsichord as well as two treble instruments and bass. One thing is certain: the violin parts were quite demanding and remain so.
In this set, the fast movements are mostly strict contrapuntal trios, they could easily be played with two violins and bass, while some of the slow movements, such as the Adagio of Sonata BWV 1014, the Adagio and the Adagio ma non tanto of Sonata BWV 1016, and the Largo and Adagio of Sonata BWV 1018, have much freer textures. The Largo of BWV 1018, for instance, is effectively a four‑part invention, with three parts played by the harpsichord. A beautiful Adagio from Sonata BWV 1016 sounds like the slow movement of a violin concerto, with the orchestra represented by the harpsichord. Probably one movement that does not resemble the trio sonata writing is the remarkable Adagio from Sonata BWV 1018 in which the harpsichord plays continuous thirty‑second notes against serene, flowing double‑stopped eighth‑notes in the violin.
It is apparent that Bach conceived the ‘Sei Suonate’ as a definitive and self-contained set, along the same lines as the six Brandenburg Concertos, the six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, and the six Cello Suites. In this set, however, the first five of the six sonatas belong together. Nos. 1‑5 are all four-movement works, using the standard slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the traditional trio sonata. The keys outline has its own logic: it precedes one sharp more in each of the first three sonatas(B Minor 2#, A Major 3#, E Major 4#) and then using flats (C Minor 3 flats, F Minor 4 flats) and only No. 6 has a logical pattern, proceeding sharpwards (B minor, A major and E major) and then flatwards (C minor, F minor), preserving a balance between major and minor works. However, No. 6 breaks the pattern in more than one way: first, it does not follow the “flatward” pattern and it has five movements rather than four. Its middle Allegro is surprisingly for harpsichord solo. Apparently the first version of that piece, as the recent research shows, consisted of six movements but in the final of the original three versions Bach settled on a symmetrical fast-slow-fast-slow-fast model. Obviously some of the movements were reworked from other works, notably cantatas, but it all still demonstrates that in preparing this set Bach showed his customary care: it helped that later in his life he came back to these works and made more changes.
These sonatas were also the models for similar works by his sons, pupils and followers, and they are the first classics in a genre that Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and later nineteenth century composers developed so fruitfully.
In the performance heard at the 92nd Street Y, Mr. Denk announced that because of the severity and somber mood of the Sonata in B Minor, No. 1 in the set, the duo will start from more optimistic No. 2 in A Major. The rest of the set was played in the order of the published score. It was a most unusual performance: a combination of violinist playing on a conventional instrument without a baroque bow, but with a baroque or H.I.P. (historically informed performance) approach; and the pianist playing on a concert grand without any pretense to have it sound as harpsichord. Here I have to confess to my intense dislike to hear “the Six” when performed on violin assisted by a harpsichord: even the recordings don’t do justice to the keyboard part which gains enormously when heard on the piano.
Mr. Denk is no stranger to Bach’s music; in the past he offered for instance quite memorable performances of the Goldberg Variations and only about six months ago on the same stage, he presented the complete First Book of the Well Tempered Clavier in a very fine interpretation. It was then not a big surprise that his contribution would be as valuable as it was. The piano parts for all of the sonatas are no less demanding than almost any other keyboard works and especially the fast polyphonic movements – in case of “the Six,” the second and fourth – demand quite a dexterity and that was never a problem for our pianist. The left hand in those sonatas serves as basso continuo or figured bass, and in some performances in addition to harpsichord a cello or viola da gamba are utilized in order to amplify that bass line. Denk’s articulation made us believe we heard rather a bassoon than string instrument: that was quite innovative and sonically compelling.
Maria Wloszczowska won 1st Prize at the 2018 International J.S. Bach competition in Leipzig (Germany) and as such is a supremely accomplished violinist with perfect intonation and sure bow‑arm. Both of the players presented vigorous, animated brimming with life and excitement versions of the fast parts and showed much needed affection and introspection in the slower movements. Some of that music would easily fit in any on the religious works especially the sonatas in the minor keys (No. 1 in B Minor, No. 4 in C Minor and No. 5 in F Minor), whereas the fast parts with their inner energy and drive could easily substitute for any concerto, the Brandenburgs included. As mentioned earlier, Sonata No. 6 gives the pianist a chance to shine as a soloist in its Allegro movement.
What I found unexpected was Wloszczowska’s approach to the sound production, which was incongruous with that of the piano. The violinist, obviously stepping into the baroque manner of playing (I almost used the word “tradition”) insisted on playing with almost no vibrato and far less opulent sound than one would expect and perhaps even wished for. So there was a distinct and audible difference in outlook and attitude, but even though it was a somewhat “marriage-of-strangers”, it still worked well because of the structure of the works. It was a strange and not totally convincing approach, but the excellent playing compensated for any shortfalls and I still preferred it to the much worse option of traditional violin with the harpsichord.
So even with those smallest of reservations, one has to admit that these were memorable performances, exceptionally well played and wonderfully conceived. They were vibrant, exciting, with a superb sense of polyphony and voicing and I think that with all my admiration for our violinist, again it was mostly Denk’s contribution that made it as successful as it was. I was so glad to hear the whole set of six sonatas and that I was able to hear Maria Wloszczowska, who undoubtedly will appear on our shores again soon. She surely would be welcomed back!