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Performance issues: Bach’s Chaconne, Partita no. 2 BWV 1004, solo violin

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 that inspires 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. The discourse will focus on larger-scale musical form; 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 masterfully as Heifetz.

Jascha 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 violinist 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. 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.

Bach Chaconne Partita BWV 1004 first line score multiple stopping 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.

Baroque influences and three-dimensional mountains

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.

Sigiswald Kuijken

Having seen the two ends of the interpretational spectrum, we are ready to appreciate Gidon Kremer, who 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 and evoking the mountainous psychological terrain that is less apparent in Heifetz. Surprisingly, Kremer’s recording is hardly ever mentioned in online forums discussing the best versions of the Chaconne. There are numerous details of articulation, dynamics, rubato and other parameters on which I don’t see eye to eye with Kremer, but these become trivial matters in a performance that has a pleasing large-scale musical and emotional structure.

Gidon Kremer

Computer programming

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 to accommodate difficult notes. Sure, if you can handle it, but I think it is acceptable 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, it can make the difference between a bad-sounding, out-of-tune performance (or giving up the piece altogether) and a fine performance that 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 festoon the music with trills and mordents. One of the instances in which this is most starkly demonstrated is the perfect cadence right at the end (below): 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 interpretation.

Bach Chaconne Partita BWV 1004 score ending violin

The final cadence: trill or not?

I will leave you with one more performance, by Ivry Gitlis. Although even more out of tune than 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!”

Ivry Gitlis

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