Partitas recorded at Lockenhaus, Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, September 25-29, 2001.
Sonatas recorded at Riga, March 10-15, 2002.
About BWV 1001-1006 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
Gidon Kremer's return to J. S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas is a major event. Kremer's first recording of these works was released almost a quarter of a century ago, and in the past few years the only solo piece of Bach's which he has performed with any regularity has been the "Chaconne". In 2001/2002 however, he once again took the greatest challenge for any violinist, Bach's magnificent "Sei Solo", in Kremer's words the "Himalayas" of violin music. The recordings were made in locations closely linked with Kremer's biography: the Sonatas were recorded in the Reformation Church of his birthplace, Riga, while the Partitas were realized in the Pfarrkirche at Lockenhaus, Austria, where he has held his famous annual chamber music festival since 1981.
Those who have followed Gidon Kremer's artistic development over the past 25 years will hardly expect a 'historically informed' interpretation in the conventional sense but will nevertheless note how much his tone and articulation has changed. The new rendering displays Kremer's very personal sense of spontaneity and a readiness to take risks, yet it is also marked by the structural awareness of an exceptional musician who, in a unique way, does justice both to the polyphonic wealth of the compositions and to their juxtaposition of dance elements and reflective profundity.
For many critics and for listeners around the world, Kremer himself set the standard for performance of this music: he was 33 years old when he first recorded the Sonatas and Partitas for Philips in 1980. Of that recording Albert Roeseler wrote in Great Violinists of our Century that Kremer played "the violin simply better, more excitingly and with more mastery" than anyone, except for Jascha Heifetz and that his interpretation of the Sonatas and Partitas comprised "one of the best of the many existing recordings, even those by Menuhin, Milstein, Szeryng, Szigeti and others, which, at the time of their releases, were given an almost reverential reception."
Kremer's intensive and varied career since then has been well-documented. Encounters with musicians such as Luigi Nono, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Part or Nikolaus Harnoncourt led Kremer, as he himself says, "to find pathways in music which have also influenced my approach to Bach." Asked about his motivation to re-enter the cosmos of Bach's solo works, he characteristically responds with more questions: "Was it the fact that they represent the absolute pinnacle of the literature for solo violin? Or perhaps I was aware that a lot of interpretations I've heard do not meet my expectations? That I had the feeling I should once again dedicate myself to Bach; a sort of 'now or never' decision?" Kremer believes that it was, above all, "simply the wonder of the 'Sei' themselves" which was his primary motivation. He felt a need to "share this experience with other like-minded people." Kremer regards this current interpretation "as a sort of legacy of the violinist GK", or at the very least, a "final statement" on Bach. The two essays which Kremer wrote for the extensive CD booklet reveal how closely he identifies with this production.
It is audible that there is more at stake than just the instrumental or musical success in the usual sense: "If you try too hard to be 'right' you will never achieve the spirit of a creator, who is only interested in the statement which transcends his own abilities." Kremer's utmost interest is in this "statement" and thus in "something mystical beyond the notes." Lipatti, Gould and Gulda, Casals, Enescu and Menuhin and also Nikolaus Harnoncourt are, in this sense, among Kremer's influences: musicians who have taught him to see Bach as even "more humane, transparent and yet full of secrets." Viewed this way, musical interpretation once again becomes a risky endeavour with an unknown ending. Kremer knows this: "Whether I have succeeded in getting across the (almost secret) message as I would like, I can't judge. I leave that to those who take more pleasure in drawing comparisons than I do"
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Time Beyond Time
Bach refers twice to Johann Rist's sacred song O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, once in the cantata BWV60 of 1723 and again in the cantata BWV20 of 1724. The choral melody repeated on the words "O Ewigkeit, Zeit ohne Zeit" rises skywards in a series of rapid gradations (like Jacob's ladder, one is tempted to say). And this ascent is carried out in two stages. The central, axial note, which occurs precisely at the half-way point, is repeated. A horizontal break interrupts the vertical of the ascent and halts it for a moment. Similarly, one and the same note (by its absolute pitch) recurs at the foot and at the crest. These two repetitions - real repetition at the axial point, virtual repetition at the beginning and end - suggest the thought that the essential amplitude of this melodic sketch is equal to... zero. And, consequently, that the lightning-like upward rush might be at once a metaphor for unceasing ascent and, paradoxically, also a metaphysical reflection of the idea of immobility, like an arc resting firmly on two points of equal height.
If some holidaymaker from another planet were to ask me to summarise the content of this recording, I would employ that melody's iconography as a representation of the way Bach equates the moment with eternity -"Zeit ohne Zeit".
And, if our extraterrestrial were interested, I could consolidate the idea by referring to the refrain of T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets ("In my beginning is my end"), or to Guillaume de Machaut's rondeau of six centuries earlier, Ma fin est mon commencement, or to Alban Berg's violin coricerto, or indeed to a multitude of other examples that quite openly reflect the symbolism of this same sketch. I would suggest, in other words, that the way out into empty space that opens up in the musical thought of the Hofkapellmeister of Kothen (a post the 35-year-old Bach took up in 1720, the year in which it is thought he composed the three sonatas and three partitas for solo violin) was probably unrealizable on the basis of exclusively rational and logical methods - if only because of its infinite scope.
In our consciousness infinity tends to be related with absolute completion. So at the end of the chaconne from the second partita in D minor we find it hard to imagine the possibility of repeating the path we have travelled, although in the conclusion we are indeed returned to its source. The musical thought (to use a favourite expression of Bach's) is carried through to its conclusion with exhaustive completeness, but it still pulsates outside the framework of a composition that seems perfect in its completion. Perhaps the point is that the closing unison marks the end of the music's space, but not of its time? T.S. Eliot describes the reality of a similar transcendent experience in Four Quartets:"... or music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music /While the music lasts...."
Bach, of course, had his own techniques - tonal, rhetorical, and architectonic-for creating this complete incompletion. Their common principle can be reduced to the opposition between gravitational attraction and the condition of weightlessness. Their goal is the expansion of the galaxy.
But it is hard, strictly speaking, to call the astronomy of the cycle of three sonatas and three partitas heliocentric. From the horizontal viewpoint, the alternation of four-part sonatas with partitas of many movements reveals a certain asymmetry, with the "golden section" coming at the chaconne or more precisely at its central D major section. However, a vertical view (the viewpoint of an extraterrestrial?) would probably reveal a symmetry of a different type: a concentric symmetry, with the triptych of the chaconne in the centre and a system of crossing arcs radiating from it (the first and the third sonatas, the first and the third partitas, the second sonata and the second partita).
The centre of this galaxy, or more precisely of its psychological equivalent, is determined by the performer and by the astronomy of the latter's imagination - if only because its chronotope is measured by the frequency of the performer's breathing. But the force that drives the performer beyond the edges of the galaxy is the music itself. For the dialogue of infinity with the finite is by its essence a genre of revelation, especially if this dialogue is conducted by a single instrument.
- Victor Kissine (translated from the Russian by E.P. Griffiths)
The"Sei Solo a Violino": A Performer's View
Time passes, whether that of the creator or of the servant, while the black dots and strokes caught by ink and paper stay forever. Ages before our Internet era these little symbols carried gigabytes of information, but, unlike what we can download today, they were always full of spiritual value. We question them and they continue to tell us something, while at the same time questioning us all.
Sonatas in G minor /A minor /C major
Adagio / Grave / Adagio
The two minor-key openings give evidence of something introspective: a single, lonely inner voice in front of an altar, kneeling, confessing, askmg, finding symbols with which to hold onto belief, dissolving its own ego in the light of a higher power.
The C major Adagio is rather the anticipation of a "process", of building up high spirits, of uniting within itself multiple layers of attitudes and approaches.
I hear C major as church bells ringing. One could speak (and probably one shouldn't, since most verbal attempts are doomed to fail) of a service, an attempt to bring light to everybody, to make bells ring (with this light) all around, and of reflecting on this.
Fugue can be seen as an attempt to multiply ideas and accumulate motion. Fugue, being adequate to the (divine) voice as a moving power, energizes everything and everybody it touches. Fugue is vital power, transforming as it is transferred.
One voice becomes many, as one word becomes universal. A move into the minor is not a falling, and yet the major uplifts.
Siciliana /Andante / Largo
These movements are the lyrical centre-pieces of each sonata: arias, spiritually related to Bach's Passions. Looking inward, dancing with one's shadow, with one's dream (could it be Ophelia?), the "passion in silence" is an attempt to find balance after the overwhelming perturbation the fugues pulled us into, charged us with. It establishes what it searches for, and what, while striving, it never seems to find: peace.
Presto / Allegro / Allegro
The keyword is "joy"-joy of all kinds: the joy of laughter and of children playing, their voices resonating on a playground, the joy of a physician finding a cure, of a mathematician (Bach himself?) juggling with formulae, of a scientist at the moment of discovery, the divine joy of affirming eternity.
Each unexpected turn is in full harmony with the chosen path, while being always different. New rules to the same game lead to fresh twists within the frame of a familiar (even to Bach) structure. The movements confirm within themselves the one and only wisdom: the joy will go on -this even when, even while, the sonata must conclude.
Partitas in B minor / D minor / E major
Doesn't Bach's logic and structure resemble the logic and structure of the old-German school of drawing? They speak from a similar love for detail, but Bach's approach is at the same time more rigorous - besides which, he himself unknowingly became a school. Many will follow it, but very few will be fruitful in their search for Bach's wisdom, remaining orphans, without God's blessing.
The French suite is a prescription for doing tasks in a certain order, as one does in the most mundane activities: hanging curtains or planting trees. It is movement through a space whose layout is already confirmed.
Bach, too, had to follow expectations, but his signature had to overrule them.
Allemanda (B minor/D minor)
Ordinary mortals hold on to tradition, which genius challenges and develops. Disobedience permits creativity. Some further steps would lead to Albert Einstein. Wasn't he a spiritual pupil of Bach?
While turning the mirror, to give the subject a new meaning in a different light, the genius is also enlarging it, revealing more of both the surface and the essence. What has become familiar is now opposed - but not contradicted, rather refreshed.
Corrente (B minor / D minor)
The rush is not to escape. Life is affirmed, as a space within which positive impulses reign, in charge of the game. Their pulse we well know; what we have lost is their sense of direction. "Where to?" (Saint Exupery).
Bach has the answer. What for us becomes breathless is for him still under control. Enjoying the turbulence of movement, he doesn't lose ground but gains it.
The double, here and elsewhere in the B minor partita, is never a sheer repeat, never a mere variation, but an enrichment, a dynamic development of the idea. The parent remains the same, the offspring are different. They go further.
Sarabande (B minor/ D minor)
Human beings preserve their voice and their dignity on the rising stairway of mourning.
A subdued reflection on sadness allows one to move on. Thus observed, the past is transcended.
We receive the chance to be reborn, while spinning a timeless web around grief in the"double".
Tempo di Borea (B minor) / Bourree (E major)
Italian? French? Inspiration doesn't recognize borders or nations, languages or nationalities.
The double may be energized - by peasants' stomping, by holding the horses, by arguing with the parents. Determination leads us to self-sufficiency, which allows the first signs of maturity to appear. Energy drives us to the end. To the point.
Vivaldi knew this from nature. Bach picked it up from Vivaldi.
Preludio / Loure / Gavotte en rondeau / Menuet (E mafor)
A falling star establishes the scene. How to continue after such a whirlwind, such a cosmic vision? Back to earth.
Does remaining in style constrain Bach? Does he mean to please? And if so, whom? The prince? (Certainly not the crowd.) Himself? No.
He dares to play in a search for tenderness. To find new steps? Maybe. But mainly to assert himself, to become one with the material-to let the rondeau "speak" earlier doubles, to flirt with the main subject of the gavotte, to set up different spectacles on the minuets.
Giga (D minor)
A dance precedes the chaconne, to which it forms a transition, from earthly realms to a cathedral. The bricks of this bridge seem to be the same as ever: changes of step and direction. But soon this gesture will exceed the material. The climb will follow, over the bridge to what will overwhelm, last beyond space and time.
Ciaccona (D minor)
We enter a solemn space, filled with human emotions but reaching out for more.
We come to a conclusion in every direction - for the musician who just dared to play it (and for many more to come), for the listener who dared to be carried away by - in - the flow of sound, for all of us. Forever.
A dance? Yes. A dance of life and death, in the architecture of a cathedral. The coloured, light-filled windows, the thirty-two variations express thousands of motions, all through the voice of one violin.
Gigue (E major)
It might be a conclusion within the terms of tradition - if tradition allows that dance can be both the reconciliation of previous drama and the voice of tomorrow. Energized by all that came before, the movement has the honourable role of concluding the "Sei". Short and clear, it sets up brightness again. And this isn't accidental (as nothing is in Bach's music). E major guarantees sunrise.
Here all of this is made audible by a modest servant of Bach, using an instrument built soon after 1730 in Cremona by Guarneri del Gesu, a genius in violin making - an instrument roughly contemporary, then, with the music, which was completed in 1720.
Almost three centuries have passed since this yesterday that will always be today.
Those who primarily cherish the eternal value of Bach's manuscripts should search for it where those precious archives can be inspected - in museums, in books, on websites. No performer can achieve the perfection of what is written. But, as recordings show, performers can bring something different: the breath of a living soul.
At once heroic and humble, such musicians extend the expressive parameters, raise the limits of allowed expression and make profoundly personal statements, be they Casals or Gould, or, among violinists, Enescu, Milstein, Menuhin or Szigeti.
I hope you hear these recordings as a document from out of our fragile, noisy and sometimes overly brilliant time-an effort to bring the score to life, give it a chance to sound and allow it to speak to us.
These are, truly, Himalayas of music. To confront their overwhelming height is to pay tribute to Bach's genius. By allowing the spirit of the"Sei"to enter the soul of a listener, JSB transcends all of us. We may even sense his voice becoming a companion in the struggle to find serenity on our path.
- Gidon Kremer