Rachel Barton Pine, violin
Cedille Records CDR 90000 078
The music of Bach has a special place in my heart. I grew up in a liberal Protestant United Church of Christ congregation whose motto was Making a Joyful Sound in the City. The sanctuary included Bach among the many religious figures featured in its stained glass windows. In this setting, I first encountered his glorious music. Our organist/choirmaster, Sam Hill, would often play a Bach Toccata and Fugue as the prelude or lead the choir in a movement from a Bach Oratorio as an anthem. When I was four years old, Sam invited me to perform in public for the first time. I played a Bach Minuet during a worship service. Throughout the remainder of my student years, I frequently performed Bach's music in my church. Playing his music is always a spiritual experience for me.
Bach's sense of faith was deep and central to his being. He signed his manuscripts Soli deo Gloria, to the glory of God. Musicologist Helga Theone has recently suggested that Christian symbolism, mathematic and thematic, is hidden both in individual movements and in the set of Six Sonatas and Partitas as a whole. While fascinating, the argument is ultimately academic. Bach recognized that his musical talents were a gift from God and he employed them in God's service. I believe that Bach's spirituality is inseparable from his music, whether sacred or secular.
While browsing in a local sheet music store at the age of 14, I discovered an edition of the Corelli Sonatas with "Corelli's own ornamentation" as notated by an audience member. Fascinated by the implications, I sought out an early-music specialist to learn more. I studied the important primary and secondary sources on baroque performance practice, including Geminiani, Quantz, C.P.E. Bach, and Boyden. I began using a baroque bow, exploring historically informed phrasing and articulation, and writing my own ornamentation. Over the years, I have sought out opportunities to discuss, read, and occasionally perform early music with experts including Sigiswald Kuijken, Anner Bylsma, Marilyn McDonald, David Douglass, Elizabeth Wright, John Mark Rozendaal, and David Schrader. My ideas about the sound, phrasing, and interpretation of baroque repertoire have evolved dramatically over the past fifteen years. On this recording, I have attempted to capture my most recent thoughts about and understanding of the music of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
My fascination with research and with deserving yet underperformed repertoire led me to investigate unusual unaccompanied baroque repertoire for the violin. My music collection quickly expanded to include Telemann's Fantasies, Playford's Division Violin, Mateis's Ayrs, and Roman's Assaggi. I became especially intrigued by the Westhoff Suites as obvious precursors to Bach. The Biber Passacaglia and Pisendel Sonata became part of my rotating recital repertoire.
In 1999, I was invited to give a performance of Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas, along with pieces for unaccompanied violin that preceded them, in a marathon recital at Oberlin Conservatory. I chose to include the Biber, the Pisendel, and a Westhoff Suite. Studying these works simultaneously taught me a great deal about the traditions from which Bach emerged and how he transcended them. For this recording, I included Bach's first Sonata as the closest link to the pieces that preceded it. I chose the D Minor Partita to highlight the connection between Bach's Ciaccona and Biber's Passacaglia. I hope that you will enjoy reacquainting yourself with Bach's genius in the context of several baroque masterpieces with which you may not yet be familiar.
Rachel Barton Pine
"GERMAN POLYPHONIC BAROQUE MUSIC FOR UNACCOMPANIED VIOLIN:
THE BACH SONATAS AND PARTITAS AND THEIR PREDECESSORS"
by Rachel Barton Pine
The coming of a new millennium prompted widespread interest in
assessing, debating, and cataloguing the previous thousand years
of human achievements. Johann Sebastian Bach's contributions were
almost universally acknowledged and celebrated as among the most
significant and profound. His compositions have served as a foundation
and source of inspiration for composers from Mendelssohn to Brahms
Bach's contrapuntal writing, in particular, continues to set the
standard by which any musical composition is judged. Among the greatest
examples of his mastery of counterpoint, the Six Sonatas and Partitas
for unaccompanied violin are a cornerstone of every violinist's
study and repertoire. Moreover, their contribution to music theory
and composition curricula throughout the world engraves them in
the collective consciousness of every serious classical musician.
We often perceive the Six Sonatas and Partitas as a miraculous
experiment that sprang entirely from Bach's imagination. In fact,
at the time he wrote these masterpieces, there was nearly a century-old
tradition of German polyphonic (multiple part) writing for unaccompanied
violin. The most important examples of this tradition illustrate
the influences on Bach and offer insight into how he transcended
what came before to fulfill the ultimate potential of the genre.
In view of their wonderful appeal to performer, listener, and researcher,
many of these compositions deserve greater recognition.
Most of the great instrumentalists of the 17th and 18th centuries
were skilled in extemporaneous playing. There are many references
to complex polyphonic improvisations by German violinists. The works
that were written down represent only a sampling of the creative
output for unaccompanied violin during this period. In fact, much
of the repertoire that has survived appears to be records of improvisations
or compositions that evolved out of the improvisatory process.
The advanced technique of German violinists of the Baroque Period
probably explains why the polyphonic complexity they achieved was
unequalled by composers from any other country. Around the middle
of the 17th century, German violinist-composers began pushing the
boundaries of violin technique far beyond the standards established
by the early 17th-century Italians Biagio Marini and Carlo Farina.
Thomas Baltzar, and later Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Johann
Paul von Westhoff, and Johann Jakob Walther, were widely considered
the leading German violinists of their generations. Walther's Scherzi
(1676) and Hortulus Chelicus (1688) offer a virtual catalogue of
their technical innovations, particularly in the areas of extended
range, double stops and chords, special bowings, and descriptive
The first known experiments in composition for unaccompanied violin
were written by German violinists: Johann Schop's Praeludium (published
in 1646), the movements in the Breslau manuscript (c.1640-1650),
and the Two Preludes and Allemande of Schop's student Baltzar (published
after his death in 1663). Their expanding technical capabilities
allowed them to create increasingly more complex repertoire. As
violinist-composers began to conceive of the violin as more than
essentially a melodic instrument, they often drew from the body
of repertoire for unaccompanied viola da gamba. The extraordinary
manuscript collection from this time, GB-Ob Mus. Sch. F.573, contains
dozens of dance movements for unaccompanied violin, most of which
are transcriptions of pieces for viol. In these works, polyphony
is emphasized through many devices including imitation, suspension,
appoggiatura, passing-tone, pedal, and auxiliary notes.
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber's (1644-1704) Passacaglia
in G minor (spelled "Passagalia" in the only surviving,
non-autograph presentation manuscript) is the largest-scale single
movement known for unaccompanied violin prior to Bach's Ciaccona.
The work is the last of a collection of sixteen pieces that were
probably written for the rosary devotions often associated with
the Feast of the Guardian Angel. The date of composition is estimated
to be between 1670 and 1674, shortly after Biber became director
of music to the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg (a post Biber held
until his death). Each of the first fifteen pieces is a sonata written
for violin and continuo inspired by a mystery of the rosary. Each
uses a different tuning of the open strings to create special resonances.
The Passacaglia, which returns to the standard tuning, is prefaced
by a drawing depicting the Guardian Angel leading a child by the
The Passacaglia is constructed around a four-note progression:
G, F, E-flat, D, the first line of the hymn to the Guardian Angel
"Einen Engel Gott mir geben." The violin provides its
own continuous bass consisting of 65 repetitions of these four notes.
The first 30 statements of the bass occur at a low pitch, the next
15 are an octave higher, and the last 20 return to the lower octave.
Many variations extend over multiple repetitions of the bass notes.
Biber's inventive piece showcases almost the entire range of then-contemporary
techniques for the violin: complicated double- and triple-stopping,
large string crosses, broken octaves, fanciful virtuoso passage
work, burls, arpeggiated figures, springing bowings, and positions
as high as the seventh. However, as with Bach's compositions, there
is nothing superficial about the result. Biber places all of his
effects at the service of the musical intent, with an outcome that
is both dramatic and spiritual.
Biber's collection of "rosary" sonatas was never printed
and was not widely circulated in his day. Therefore, it is unlikely
that Bach would have been familiar with Biber's Passacaglia. Nevertheless,
Biber's Passacaglia, in the magnificence of its conception, the
exploitation of the unaccompanied violin in the form of variations
on a ground, and the success of the musical result, can be considered
the precursor of Bach's Ciaccona.
Johann Paul von Westhoff's (1656-1705) Six Suites, rediscovered
in the early 1970s, represent the only known collection of multiple
multi-movement works for unaccompanied violin before Bach. Westhoff
published the Suites in Dresden in 1696, while serving as a member
of the Dresden Hofkapelle. Each Suite uses the same traditional
sequence of dance movements: allemande, courante, sarabande, and
gigue. The movements of each Suite are in the same key and in standard
binary (two-part) form, with the first section cadencing on the
dominant. Westhoff notated the Suites in a unique way, using eight
staffs, treble clef for the upper two strings and alto clef for
the lower two. The Six Suites represent the most extreme polyphonic
writing for unaccompanied violin prior to Bach.
The Suite No. 2 in A major (not to be confused with Westhoff's
earlier Suite in A major, published in 1682), is one of the simplest
in the collection, yet one of the most immediately appealing. In
contrast to the rhythmic patterns of the first half of the Allemande,
the second half consists almost entirely of bariolage. The Courante
is notable for its extended passages of consecutive thirds. The
Sarabande is one of Westhoff's more lyrical. The energetic Gigue
uses three voices in a quasi-fugal sequence and numerous three-note
Despite their relatively conservative formal structure, Westhoff's
Suites are quite imaginative. However, Bach's works far surpass
them in realizing the contrapuntal and musical potential of the
unaccompanied violin. Unlike the Westhoff Suites, each of Bach's
Partitas uses a different sequence of dance movements. Their harmonic
patterns are more complex, allowing him to extend the length of
his movements. While Westhoff mostly relies on continuous chords
as a polyphonic tool, Bach often implies polyphony in single-line
passages and movements.
Bach writes out ornamentation for many of his slower movements.
Comparison of the Sarabanda from Bach's D minor Partita with those
by Westhoff is illuminating. If not for Bach's ornamentation, his
Sarabanda would look very similar to Westhoff's series of chordal
progressions. Clearly, Westhoff's Sarabandes were not meant to be
played without the addition of tasteful embellishments.
The young Bach was employed briefly as a violinist in Weimar in
1703 where an aging Westhoff was serving as chamber secretary, chamber
musician, and teacher of French and Italian at the town's Court
and Chapel. It is very likely that the two met and that Bach was
familiar with Westhoff's compositions.
Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755) was the foremost German
violinist of the first half of the 18th century. Vivaldi, Albinoni,
and Telemann all dedicated works to him. In his famous treastise,
Quantz wrote about Pisendel's influential work as leader-concertmaster
of the court orchestra at Dresden.
Pisendel's technical mastery is documented clearly in his Sonata
in A minor for unaccompanied violin, written in 1716 or 1717 during
a period of extensive European touring. The technical demands are
far more advanced than anything previously written for unaccompanied
violin. The Allegro and Giga feature flying staccato. The Giga also
demands double-stops in intervals up to and including the tenth.
Ease in the higher positions is assumed.
The Sonata is longer and less chordally dense than Westhoff's Suites.
It mixes aspects of Italian rhythm and melody with serious German
counterpoint. The formal scheme is unusual, neither a church sonata
nor a dance suite. The first movement is untitled, but is clearly
in a slow tempo. Richly ornamented, all of the embellishments are
fully written out. The chord changes are occasionally quite startling,
and the effect is at turns rhapsodic and declamatory. Lombardic
rhythm (short-long) is used in all three movements and in extended
passages in the second movement. The Allegro and Giga are in binary
form. Written mostly in a single voice, the Allegro is not polyphonically
complex but exhibits spirited character and numerous rhythmic contrasts.
The Giga and Variation are in counterpoint for two voices, with
interesting examples of contrary motion. The Variation is essentially
a double, an embellished version of the original movement that follows
its harmonic outline. In combining the Giga and its double, I have
followed the suggestion of my friend Christopher Verrette, a violinist
in Canada's Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.
Pisendel and Bach spent time together in Weimar in 1709 and continued
to exchange music after they parted. The two likely met in Dresden
in 1717, shortly after Pisendel finished his Sonata and probably
just before Bach began writing his. Pisendel returned to Dresden
from Italy on September 27th and Bach left the city in early October.
During his touring, Pisendel had briefly studied with Vivaldi. Bach's
strong attraction to Vivaldi's music suggests he would have been
especially interested in Pisendel's recent composition. It is interesting
to note that Bach's first Partita, the only one in which he follows
his movements with doubles, substitutes a Bourée and Double
for the expected Gigue and Double. Perhaps this substitution was
made out of respect for the final two movements of Pisendel's Sonata.
The autograph manuscript of the Six Sonatas and Partitas by Johann
Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is dated 1720. Scholars believe he
began writing these pieces during the end of his service to the
Duke of Weimar, possibly during his brief imprisonment in November
of 1717 for seeking to leave the Duke's employ. Bach probably continued
work on the Sonatas and Partitas after entering the service of Prince
Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a period without church duties in
which he completed much of his celebrated chamber and instrumental
music. The Sonatas are in the Italian "church sonata"
form: slow, fast, slow, fast. The first and second movements are
in the style of preludes and fugues, the melodic third movements
are in contrasting keys, and the last movements imply multiple voices
within a single line. The Partitas (spelled "Partia" in
the manuscript) are suites of dance movements. It is clear that
Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas were conceived as a cycle. Each
Sonata is followed by a Partita. Each Sonata's fugue is longer and
more complex than the previous one's, and the movements of the Partitas
increase in number from 4 to 5 to 6.
Bach's Sonata in G minor begins with an Adagio in ABA form. The
taste and inventiveness of Bach's ornamentation is especially evident
when the outer sections are compared. The embellishments of the
same material are almost entirely different. The Fuga contrasts
three-voiced contrapuntal sections in multiple-stops and idiomatic
homophonic passagework with implied counterpoint. The section of
broken chords in the middle and the organ-like ending, both over
a pedal point of D, are especially noteworthy. The delicate Siciliana
simulates the texture of a trio sonata, with two treble voices in
duet and an accompanying bass line. The Presto, in binary form,
is full of complex inner rhythms and is an impressive example of
polyphony hidden in a single-line movement.
Bach's Partita in D minor begins with the four standard movements
of the dance suite. The Allemanda, Corrente, and Giga contain primarily
single line writing. Each movement is in binary form, with the addition
of an especially beautiful single-voiced coda at the end of the
chordal Sarabanda. The opening chord patterns and serious character
of these movements prepare the way for the mighty Ciaccona. The
Ciaccona, thirty-four variations on an eight-bar descending chromatic
bass line, is in three-part form: minor-major-minor. The ground
is frequently changed to allow for more varied treatment. This movement
goes through an enormous range of emotions and sonorities. Despite
its grandeur, the character of the dance is never entirely absent.
For many generations, it has been considered the benchmark of a
violinist's interpretative ability and has often been performed
as a stand-alone piece.
While Bach is remembered mainly as a keyboard virtuoso, the violin
was his first instrument. His first professional position was as
a violinist, and he was employed as concertmaster in Weimar before
moving to Cöthen. It is likely that Bach played his three unaccompanied
violin sonatas himself during communions at the Thomaskirche in
Leipzig. While Bach's Sonatas and Partitas do not include many of
the advanced virtuoso techniques employed by Pisendel, they are
technically challenging for both left and right hands. In fact,
Pisendel is the only other violinist who is thought to have played
them during Bach's lifetime. There are accounts of Pisendel playing
four-part fugues during masses in the Dresden chapel, though whether
these were Bach's or his own improvisations is unknown. Perhaps
in reference to Pisendel, C.P.E. Bach wrote to his father's biographer,
Johann Nicholaus Forkel: "One of the greatest violinists told
me once that he had seen nothing more perfect for learning to be
a good violinist
than the said violin solos without bass."
About the Violin
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to record this music
on a 1770 Nicola Gagliano in unaltered baroque condition. The instrument
is strung with gut strings tuned to A=415. I chose this violin partly
from a desire for greater authenticity, but mainly because this
instrument and setup bring me closest to the concept of sound that
I envision for my interpretations of this repertoire.
"A most accomplished Baroque violinist, fully the equal of the foremost specialists. Her fine tone is capable of sounding expressive without reliance on vibrato… The playing is remarkably clean, pure and stylish; I particularly admired her chord playing in the Westhoff, a densely polyphonic piece that’s made to sound entirely poised and natural… Throughout the recital she demonstrates an acute rhythmic sense, allowing flexibility while retaining the character of all the dance movements. And there’s a highly developed feeling for musical form; the confident way she leads us through to the climactic moments of the two long variation pieces (Biber and the Bach Chaconne) makes for unusually satisfying performances."
"Pine brings to [Biber’s Passacaglia] a gentleness and occasional brilliance, teasing out its long, mournful lines, which so often threaten to fade into nothingness. Westhoff’s Suite, by contrast, is quite a jolly affair, a four-movement set, all of it eminently danceable. Pine is alive to its springing rhythms and attractive melodies, and takes its multiple-stopping challenges in her stride… Pine plays [Pisendel’s Sonata] with astonishing clarity and articulation. Bach works bracket the disc and she performs them with mature authority and a sure touch for drawing out and shaping contrapuntal lines. The final Chaconne is wonderfully shaped and fluent. This is a fascinating CD, with Pine consistently drawing great things from her 1770 Nicola Gagliano violin."
"Pine delivers one of the most appealing baroque violin tones I've ever heard… She shows extraordinary mastery of ornamentation and obviously has worked out the most subtle expressive mannerisms with great care--a gently dying end of phrase, a momentary, impassioned surge of tempo, for instance. And she surely knows how to put the fire to a Presto, giving a fine point to each attack with no scraping or scratching--and never sounding frantic… Pine's rendition of the Partita shows her…grip not only on the linear and harmonic details but on how to illuminate the larger structures, particularly in the famous Chaconne.
It's the Pisendel Sonata in A minor that emerges as the program's highlight. The opening Largo sings with brilliant voice, passionately pleading, then fluttering off high into the air, and Pine creates a delightful little drama that leads directly to a catchy Allegro, whose signature is a jumpy little rhythmic figure that Pine fully exploits. The closing Giga is a snazzy dance full of virtuosic delights (and pitfalls), and again Pine seems to be having nothing but great fun with this charming, eminently listenable work. The Biber Passacaglia is another challenging and substantial piece that's heard all too rarely--and here Pine is at her most captivating, controlling the myriad expressive aspects with theatrical flair while showing off her violin's tonal beauty and range.
This is a first-rate recital--ideally recorded--that shows an extraordinary young artist at work, offering insights and interpretations that welcome repeated listening and signal a major career in progress."
"The clarity of the presentation is quite special. Rachel Barton Pine is a musician who can grasp a composer’s flash of inspiration in a work and boil it down to performance. She has given each of the pieces on the disc, whether one or five movements, its own character and articulation. The Partita 2 is poised and thoughtful, with a meditative chaconne. The Biber passacaglia, on the other hand, is dramatic almost to excess, which is exactly right for this very theatrical composer. Westhoff’s Suite in A Major is one glittering third after another, like a string of pearls. With Pisendel’s sonata, Pine delights us with the wizardry of the composer, more than her own technique (which is nonetheless astonishing). Every phrase is individually constructed, and the piece comes across as a real masterwork."
Early Music America
"This disc should solidify her reputation as one of our best players of Baroque violin music. Using an unaltered 1770 Gagliano violin, which she chose for its sound, she gives us two of Bach's major violin works (Sonata No. 1 and Partita No. 2) in superbly musical and sensible performances. The famous Chaconne, for example, has magnificent drama without any grandiosity… This is an illuminating release which will add something unique even to a record collection already blessed with good recordings of the Bach works."
"Mainstream violinists used to play Baroque music out of a sense of duty, but Rachel Barton Pine clearly does it out of love… There's nothing romanticized about her approach, which is full of properly sighing phrases and expert ornamentation… Pine is especially effective in the introspective movements. She also has fun with the faster material, especially the gigues that swing (in Bach) and twitter (in Pisendel)…She clearly understands that many of these movements must dance, yet she's at her best when she helps the music sing."
"Pine's playing has a nice balance of formality and spontaneity. She brings out the dancey quality that exists at the heart of many of the movements. The CD winds up with the chaconne of the D minor partita, an amazing combination of spiritual depth and intellectual vitality."
St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
"These are definitely not pretty miniature baroque violin performances. They are most vital, often snarling with an energy not often thought of as baroque. All are performed with great panache and commitment by Rachel Barton Pine, winner of the 1992 J.S. Bach International Violin Competition. The violin sound is immediate and tangible - such that the fingerings, particularly the double stops, communicate the spontaneity and vitality inherent within these baroque masterpieces. Here is exciting music most ably performed and recorded. Highly recommended!"
"None of this scholarship would be of much value if the performances were not of such great musicality and clarity. Pine plays with a powerful tone, and obviously has the technique to attack the most difficult moments in these many pieces without one hearing hesitation or struggle. But above this accomplishment one also is left with the exhilaration of great music given brilliant realizations."
Home News Tribune (New Jersey)
"She illuminates these [works] from within with a lively intelligence… For example, she clarifies the voice leading even in the heaviest chordal sections of the fugue of Bach’s G-Minor sonata and makes slight ritards to mark pivotal melodic notes in the final metrically kaleidoscopic Presto, adding unobtrusive accentuations to point up that movement’s longer-breathed ascending and descending patterns…. Pine raises Biber’s Passacaglia well above the level of either contrapuntal exercise or violinistic display (although it – and her reading of it – undeniably make a brilliant effect)… Pisendel’s Sonata offers more in the way of Italianate virtuosity – running passages in the higher positions and the relief of monody with fewer hidden meanings. Pine’s crisp articulation and rhythmic élan make these passages sparkle as though set with brilliant stones… Pine holds the listener’s attention (as did the later Milstein) while never indulging eccentricity. Her reading of the Chaconne brings out similarities in its swirling figuration to that of Biber’s Passacaglia… Although these styles display neither wide geographic nor chronological diversity, Pine manages to differentiate them, at the same time revealing the nuclear fusion of their stylistic threads that Bach’s sonatas and partitas represent: she creates melodic interest in the polyphony and polyphonic interest in their melody."
"Westhoff's piece is full of study-like complications, including a succession of double stops lasting for several minutes in its first movement; Pisendel's piece is flashy, with sharp harmonic shifts and a strong semi-improvisatory feel. Pine effectively transfers that improvisatory quality to Bach's music, and she holds the listener's interest over the course of the entire recording… Pine accomplishes her bold goals here, and keeps her rising star on its trajectory."
All Music Guide