Bach: Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 for Solo Cello (22 minutes)

As is the case with the six Sonatas and Partitas for violin, there is some mystery as to why Bach composed the six Suites for solo cello, which date from around the same time, the early 1720s. Typically relegated to an accompaniment role in trio sonatas and the like, the cello as a solo instrument had only just begun to come into its own, partly through the concertos of composers like Antonio Vivaldi. Bach had daily contact with two fine cellists, Christian Ferdinand Abel and Christian Bernhard Linigke, at Prince Leopold’s court at Cöthen. Perhaps their artistry inspired him, or perhaps he was simply exploring the limits of what the instrument could do.

The Suite in C major is probably the most popular of the six. The opening Prélude, typically for Bach, is improvisatory in feeling. But here the mood is light, as a pedal point (a single note in the bass) underlies much of the music as the figures above it gain in strength and complexity. The elaborate Allemande includes a number of “sequences,” or melodic phrases that repeat at different pitch levels, and the Courante takes up this idea with contrasting phrases. An expressive Sarabande features polyphony played out in triple and quadruple stops. The march-like first Bourrée is followed by a second, in the minor mode, which is the only movement of the Suite that features just a single line of melody, with no double or triple stops. A Gigue brings the Suite to a lively conclusion.

Bach: Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041 (15 minutes)

While the A minor Violin Concerto may have been written during his years in Cöthen — from 1717 to 1723, during which he composed the Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, and numerous solo compositions — the only handwritten parts from Bach’s time date from 1730, while Bach served as Kapellmeister for the city of Leipzig, and the Concerto may have been composed for the Collegium musicum group that Bach led there.

The first movement is in ritornello form, in which a main theme returns several times in different forms — in this case, the orchestral statements of the ritornello theme alternate with sections featuring the solo violin. Another standard Baroque concept, the ostinato (a repeating melody line or fragment that repeats several times, oftentimes as a bass line underneath other material), is featured in the continuo parts of the slow, melancholy second movement, although the ostinato line drops out during the sections featuring the soloist. With the rhythm of a gigue, the lively third movement incorporates aspects of the contrapuntal fugue.

Bach: Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 for Solo Violin (16 minutes)
Bach: Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 for Solo Violin (20 minutes)

Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin are generally regarded as among the greatest music ever written for the instrument. Probably written around 1720, they exploit a dazzling range of tone colors, textures, and moods, frequently creating the illusion of two, three, even four simultaneous melodic lines. As one critic has written, “To the violinist they are a complete world of beauty, and a training ground whereon his powers may always be proved and tested.” As works for unaccompanied violin they are practically unprecedented, although Bach was probably familiar with their few predecessors, like the Passacaglia by Heinrich Biber (1674) and the handful of sonatas written by Paul von Westhoff in the 1690s. By all accounts Bach wasn’t quite enough of a violinist to be able to play them himself. Ever the teacher, perhaps he wrote them for advanced students to develop their technique.

The Sonata No. 1 is one of the most frequently performed of the six Sonatas and Partitas, and makes for an ideal introduction to these towering works. It takes the form of the traditional sonata da chiesa, or church sonata, with its slow-fast-slow-fast four movement scheme. Opening with an elegant, almost improvisatory Adagio, with a host of trills and other decorations, the work also features an impressive and elaborate Fugue (the shortest of the three fugues found among the Sonatas and Partitas, but no less powerful for that), a gently flowing Siciliana whose melodic line alternates between the violin’s low and high registers, and a sweeping concluding Presto.

The exuberant Preludio of the E major Partita, which also was adapted for use in two of Bach’s cantatas (BWV 120a and BWV 29), is perhaps the best-known movement in the work and makes considerable demands on the violinist’s technique, with its rapid-paced sixteenth-notes. After an elegant, gigue-like Loure (named after a kind of bagpipe native to Normandy) comes the tuneful Gavotte and Rondeau, which alternates several statements of the main theme with contrasting episodes. Although they both make use of double and triple stops (playing two or three strings at once), the two minuets are of quite different character: the first is courtly and stately, the second, with its drone, more rustic in flavor. Alternating dynamics and syncopated rhythms mark the Bourrée, and the Partita concludes with a joyous Gigue.

Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 (20 minutes)

Bach wrote some of his four Suites for orchestra (and possibly others now lost) during his years in Cöthen. Others, including perhaps the Suite No. 2, date from his time in Leipzig as Kantor of the city’s Thomas School (a post he held from 1723 until his death). The Suites were almost certainly performed at the concerts of the Collegium musicum – a semi-professional group of students, amateur musicians, and music fans – that Bach led weekly at Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig.

A Suite of that time typically begins with a lengthy Overture, followed by a collection of short dances. Bach’s Overture for the Orchestral Suite No. 2 opens and closes with slow, stately music with dotted rhythms, framing a much livelier central section with contrapuntal textures. Like the Rondo that came later, the Rondeau alternates several statements of a refrain and shorter contrasting sections. The Sarabande is slow and stately, in a triple meter, with the flute doubling the first violin, as it does in later movements, in a complex polyphonic web. The bourrée was a French dance in a fast duple meter. Bach combines two, each repeated, with a further concluding statement of the first. Familiar from its much later use by Chopin, the Polonaise is lively and rhythmic. Its main theme is similar to a Polish folk song, “Wezmę ja kontusz” (I’ll take my nobleman’s robe). A graceful Minuet follows. Finally, the Badinerie (French for “jesting”) has become a showpiece for the flute due to its difficulty and speed.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047 (12 minutes)

In 1721 Bach sent his beautifully handwritten manuscript of the six “Concertos for various instruments” (they were dubbed the Brandenburg Concertos in the 1880s by Bach biographer Philipp Spitta) to the Berlin home of Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, brother of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia. The Margrave had met Bach a couple of years earlier, and asked him to compose something for the Margrave’s small orchestra. The Concertos Bach sent were not, however, specially written for the Margrave; most or all of them had been composed earlier for Bach’s Cöthen employer Prince Leopold. Bach saw in the Margrave a potential employment opportunity, and responded enthusiastically with the now-famous Concertos. Unfortunately for the ambitious composer, the scores lay untouched in the Margrave’s library until the latter’s death thirteen years later, when they were sold off for mere pennies.

The Concerto No. 2 is particularly noteworthy for its virtuoso parts for four diverse soloists — trumpet, recorder (or flute), oboe, and violin. It’s in the usual form of a concerto grosso, three movements in fast-slow-fast tempos, in which the soloists (concertino) and the small accompanying orchestra (ripieno) combine and alternate. The trumpet part, to this day considered one of the most difficult in all of music, was possibly originally written for Johann Ludwig Schreiber, the court trumpeter in Cöthen, a specialist on the valveless or natural trumpet typical in Bach’s time. Most of the part is played in the high “clarino” part of the trumpet’s range.

The orchestra starts the first movement with a lively eight-bar theme. Parts of it return several times, separated by new two-bar phrases played by the soloists. After that, soloists and orchestra take turns with the main ideas in constantly evolving textures. The trumpet is silent for the Andante, as the other three soloists take overlapping turns with a sighing melody over a spare walking bass accompaniment. The trumpet returns in the third movement, announcing the main theme. Soon the other soloists join in, taking the lead with occasional support from the orchestra, in festive counterpoint.

Program Notes by Chris Morrison