(To listen to the interpretation closest to my personal musical ideal, scroll down to the video of Gidon Kremer.)
The Chaconne, after almost three hundred years (since 1723), remains one of the greatest works ever written for solo violin. It is thought to have been composed in mourning after the death of Bach’s wife; the opening section, played in a suitable manner, can sound very much like one weeping in sorrow, complete with the sniffing and choking of the giant chords. The protagonist stops crying for a while and goes on to brood at great length and depth on the tragedy, his musical utterances expounding sublime beauty of body and character even in death, and suffering periodic relapses of sorrowful outbursts (the distribution of intensities possibly conforming to some power law of nature).
The temporary switch to the major key in the middle of the piece is often described simply as a kind of respite from the depressing mood of the rest of it. That may be true, but I do not think this description does it full justice. I think it goes deeper: it is a reminiscence of the wonderful time spent in each other’s company in life, made so much more beautifully poignant by the ever-present chromaticism.
Such is the narrative and sound world I have conceived for my own playing of the Chaconne, helped in no small way by insights gained from performances of diverse character given by the great violinists of the world. I will mention some of the ones I found remarkable (Heifetz, Kuijken, Kremer, Gitlis), along with my personal opinions. The discourse will focus on larger-scale musical form and take a brief excursion into how acoustics can affect the music; for a rigorous monograph of the gory bar-by-bar details of technical challenges of the Chaconne and how different editors and performers have dealt with them, the attention of the reader is drawn to the doctoral dissertation by Carmelo de los Santos at the University of Georgia.
We start with Jascha Heifetz, whose performance is widely regarded as one of the reference interpretations of the Chaconne. It is the epitome of the romantic bravura style with luscious vibrato and big slides to high notes. Few other players pull off this style as spontaneously as Heifetz.
Additional insights into Heifetz’s Chaconne can also be had from a video of a Heifetz masterclass, where he emphasizes to the student the importance of bringing out the melody in the chords, something prone to neglect when one is caught up getting the notes to play clearly and in tune.
Heifetz’s rendition has great authority in the community, but there is one aspect of it where I do prefer alternative interpretations. You may be surprised that it has little to do with his romantic style per se, which I think is one of the various musically legitimate ways of playing Bach in our era, although I don’t play that way myself. My main complaint is more basic: essentially that it stays almost uniformly loud and dramatic throughout, causing the mind to be gradually desensitized to the diverse and more subtle nuances of the music.
Although the melody does come forth clearly even in the chordal sections, because of the constant loudness it lacks the ‘third-dimensional’ contour. You can think of it as a flat landscape with a small hill or two here and there, versus a Himalayan mountain range. You can trace a convoluted and geometrically pleasing path on a flat surface but it remains two-dimensional, but it is a different matter (and perhaps more exciting) traversing deep river gorges and ice cliffs. One can imagine that a vast flat desert stretching as far as the eye can see can be equally awe-inspiring, but one might prefer mountains, especially when the notes of this particular work are themselves in constant undulation spanning the low and high registers of the violin.
(Reproduced from the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, available at IMSLP)
Take the first 8 bars (above) for example, where the melody is in the top line. Heifetz himself shapes it a bit more than the student in his masterclass; in the student version there is no discernible emotional high point at the top B flat in bar 7 besides the fact that it reaches the maximum pitch, and Heifetz doesn’t complain about it. Perhaps it could be argued that the pitch itself does the job and there is no need to make it go louder or slower, but I feel that pitch, dynamics and tempo could be synergized into a potent expressive force. One must of course guard against overdoing it and losing the momentum of the music, especially as it has only just begun. The word for it is understated, defined in the dictionary as ‘presented or expressed in a subtle and effective way’.
Intonation and temperament
Having less to do with interpretation and more related to technique is that many of Heifetz’s notes are out of tune. Not catastrophically so, but with sufficient frequency and amplitude that it gets distracting. This is exacerbated by the abundance of chords and arpeggiation, where intonation is especially important. The violin, as an instrument that allows the player to adjust pitch in infinitely small gradations, offers the possibility of playing pure-sounding intervals in which the frequency ratio between two notes is a rational number and the pitches exactly coincide with those in the harmonic spectrum, in contrast to the slightly less pure-sounding equal temperament (found on modern keyboard instruments for example) where the notes within an octave are snapped to equidistant intervals. Heifetz is out of tune even with respect to equal temperament; I just think that there is so much potential for the music have more of the sonorous quality by nailing those rational ratios in many more of the chords and arpeggios, certainly not a very tall order for one of Heifetz’s calibre. Accurate intonation in a solo violin piece also helps the listener to mentally reconstruct the harmonic structure when there is only a single line of notes. For all these criticisms, I do play much worse than Heifetz.
We move on to the performance of Sigiswald Kuijken, an example of the ‘original’ version performed with a Baroque violin in Baroque style that is rarely listened to nowadays. It is truer to the dance that is the Chaconne, and less intense yet deeply contemplative and ethereal. I have no complaint about Kuijken; his interpretation is distinct from mine, but he convinces me. Presumably there are others who would say the opposite with Kuijken versus Heifetz. The bottom line is probably that it is a matter of individual musical taste; I admit I’m biased.
Gidon Kremer, my favourite, masterfully adapts Baroque musical form and elegance to the incisive and powerful timbre of the modern violin in an interpretation that is intense at times and ethereal at others, getting quite close to the narrative proposed in the beginning. Surprisingly, Kremer’s recording is hardly ever mentioned in online forums discussing the best versions of the Chaconne, while Heifetz usually appears at or near the top of the list.
Nevertheless, there are numerous details of articulation, dynamics, rubato and other parameters that I would play differently from Kremer, and I might even play them differently at different times. These details are often subtle and interdependent and are best conveyed by the universal language of music itself, assuming that I ever play it well enough to make a convincing recording. The more important thing is that a given performance flows—evolves—musically and emotionally from beginning to end.
Acoustics and architecture
This particular performance, at the church of St. Nikolaus in Lockenhaus (see German-language documentary about its conception), is also a positive example of the critical but often neglected role of the acoustics and architecture of the music-making venue. I will digress a little bit here but will subsequently explain how this is specifically relevant to Bach’s works for solo instruments.
The sound of the violin or any other non-electrically amplified instrument for that matter is not a product of the instrument in isolation; it is a product of the instrument interacting with the room it is played in. One of the most fundamental considerations is reverberation, which is a function of room size, surface reflectivity, instrument loudness, note length and other variables. Play fast notes in a small room with overly reflective walls, and multiple sounds bounce around uncontrollably in a resounding but unintelligible mess. Put a single violin in a large hall covered with absorbent curtains, and even a fortissimo gets snuffed out of existence the moment it is played. But if one finds just the right conditions, one can create a sound that is clearly articulated yet sonorous.
I have found from my own experience of a room with an optimal combination of parameter values that contrary to what people say about the reverberation covering up your mistakes, it doesn’t necessarily do so, even with the fastest demisemiquaver passages in the Chaconne with a reverberation of two or three seconds. The secret is in the loudness, not the length, of the reverberation: there are combinations of room size and reflectivity where the reverberation is long enough to feel good but soft enough not to interfere with articulation. You can still hear those mistakes clearly, and it actually makes it more obvious when you’re out of tune, and therefore encourages more accurate intonation, because adjacent notes overlap just the right amount and the ear is able to superimpose them for comparison. Indeed, for Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo instruments, this overlap has another positive musical effect: it helps pseudoharmonize the music that has a predominantly monophonic texture. Of course, the optimal room size and reflectivity change with the average volume of the instrument and with the number of instruments.
What about architecture? When there is visual stimulus that complements the auditory, the performance envelopes the consciousness more completely and makes for a more fulfilling experience. It does not have to be opulent baroque architecture; it can be glass and concrete, but it has to be inspiring in design. A concert stage with curtains in the background, for example, may have highly justifiable practical acoustical rationale but does not come across as inspiring architecture to me. But it doesn’t mean that a good design cannot be dead simple. A bare concrete room with a few simple pieces of hanging art nicely spotlighted, for example, can feel infinitely profound; the idea is to create synergy, not distraction.
Back to the music itself, there is an article in The Strad where Ida Haendel shares her views on interpreting the Chaconne. One of her suggestions is to never slow down for the purpose of accommodating difficult notes. Sure, if you can handle it, but I think it is acceptable within reasonable bounds if it remains musically coherent. In fact, sometimes slowing it down makes it both easier and more dramatic, as can happen at large cadences with chords spanning all four strings. For an amateur like me, it makes the difference between a bad-sounding, out-of-tune performance (or giving up the piece altogether) and a performance that still sounds good and musical and inspires people. The thing to remember is not to keep doing the same thing throughout the piece—no matter how musical the individual instance, relentless repetition would make the emergent musical structure robotic, like looping or matrix algebra in a computer programme.
Haendel offers good reasons for minimizing embellishment, but my main argument for minimization is more closely related to the mood of the Chaconne in particular, rather than to more general arguments about Baroque performance practice. Simply, if we hear the Chaconne as a sad and tragic piece, then one wouldn’t have the desire to add trills and hula hoop turns all over the place. One of the instances in which this is most starkly demonstrated is the perfect cadence right at the end (below): in the video above, Kremer plays it without a trill (although he used to trill it in recordings made earlier in life), imparting a sinking feeling of finality, driving it ‘right into the ground’ as Haendel describes her take on the ending. Adding a trill won’t make it frivolous, but it does lighten it a bit, and this might work well depending on one’s overall conception of the music. I do it without the trill.
There is hardly right or wrong; it is more important for one to come up with an interpretation that one believes in and has a powerful urge to convey to the audience. Even then, I don’t think I can please everyone; there will always be someone who doesn’t like it, and this is what ultimately makes music beautiful and timeless. I will leave you with one more performance worth listening to, by Ivry Gitlis. Although out of tune like Heifetz, its idiosyncratic and rugged ‘mountainous’ soundscape make up for it. In his words (quoted on his Wikipedia page), “don’t be so polite with the music, it’s like in love!”