Baroque Period

  • Bowing to Bach--Violin Solo Sonatas and Partitas

     

    Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
    Tomas Cotik, violin.
    Centaur 3755/3756
    Disc One: Total Time:  57:43
    Disc One: Total Time:  60:50
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

     

    Violinist Tomas Cotik explores the solo sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) in this new two-disc release from Centaur Records.  The six works are among the most personal expressions of Bach’s.  One might even romanticize that these are the composer using music to channel his personal loss at the death of his wife Maria Barbara that year (1720).  Even without that possible inspiration, the pieces are, like the solo cello suites, amazing feats of compositional skill with snapshots of musical style and dance music influences popular at the time.  The album places the first two sonatas on disc one sandwiching the first of the solo partitas.  Disc two reverses this placing the partitas as bookends and the third sonata at the center.  There is plenty of competition on disc with hundreds of recordings of all these works often chosen by one’s affinity for a particular performer or sound.  Some of that may also influence one’s decision related to this release.  Cotik’s performance takes a page from the authentic performance practice school which follows current understanding of Baroque style.  His instrument is a modern one, with what sounds like softer strings than one might find in a contemporary instrument.  Also interesting is his decision to use a Baroque bow.  This plays out rather impressively as Cotik is able to create delicate nuanced and full sounds for the slower movements and a tighter, brisker response for the faster passage work.

    Such sensibilities can be instantly appreciated in the Violin Sonata No. 1 in g, BWV 1001.  There is beautiful subtlety in the sound and phrasing in the opening “Adagio” and in the third movement “Siciliana”.  (The same can be said of his haunting performance of the opening “Grave” in BWV, 1003.)  A hint of the technical virtuosity to come appears in the second movement “fugue” (less strict than one might anticipate), but it is really in the superb “Presto” of the finale where Cotik’s technical virtuosity comes forth.  The first Partita in b, BWV 1002, is like a lone dance master revisiting popular dance forms.  Though not the longest, the eight movements here give the soloist plenty of opportunity to explore rhythms and an almost improvisatory feel that shifts in mood from slower expressive styles to faster-paced “doubles” that tend to explore a wider range of the instrument.  These are the moments where Cotik’s virtuosity shines with an almost breathless unfolding of the musical materials that traverse the range of the instrument.  Tone and pitch are also spot on in these often breathless renditions.  It makes those calmer, restrained moments even more stark by comparison.  Shaping some of these lines is another important facet in communicating the music’s power and Cotik manages this quite well with excellent rhythmic emphasis coupled with a fine sense of overall line.  The two partitas on disc two (BWV. 1004 and 1006) feature melodic ideas that are a bit more interesting than those in the first partita.  This is especially true of the third partita with its movements more closely aligned with Bach’s dance suites.  The real stand out amon them is the intense chaconne that concludes the second partita.  Cotik brings out these pointed dance rhythms very well here.  The “Corrente” of the second partita just zips along nicely with moments that feel the most improvisatory yet of the pieces.  The contrasts between these fast and slow dance extremes is brought out equally well in these two partitas.  The solo sonata in the midst of them also seems like the real crowning achievement of the sonatas themselves.  The most amazing is the extensive “fugue” movement.

    What is striking here by pairing the works this way is that we get two sides of Bach.  The one picture evokes a grand master of expressiveness and indivudal seriousness, the other a lighter, more public persona.  Two sides of a composer’s personality and interests that cut through the performances.  It is worth noting that even in the sonatas, some of that dance-like quality manages to seep nicely into Cotik’s interpretation.

    Solo Baroque works are certainly not always the first thing one turns to from this period, but here, as in most any work by Bach, there is a great deal to reward the listener.  The music is quite engaging and when played as it is here, it engages the listener without feeling too fussy or overtly academic.  At the same time, the performance have an air of authenticity to them that also help ease the listener into this fascinating sound world where one instrument can seem to still manage to infer harmonies, cross rhythms, and intriguing counterpoint.

    Cotik has been building a steady fine catalogue of quite varied musical styles.  He has recorded one of these works before as part of a collection of music.  This release will allow some comparison there, but really it gives us a window into his interpretations of Bach’s intimate music.  The sound helps provide an equally warm ambience that aids Cotik’s performance without blurring it with echoes or delays.  Instead, it provides us a perfect seat with this music front and center.  One can hear for themselves how the use of the Baroque bow changes the articulations and strength of tone that Cotik coaxes from his instrument.  The faster movements seem to breeze by more than many other contemporary interpretations which may be due to this change.  That said, the bottom line is that Bach’s music really does shine here with both its moments of beauty and fascinating, virtuoso demands and displays.  Disc two seems to be the most engaging of the two, most likely because the music there is also more interesting, but that is not to take away from the equally fine work that occurs on disc one.  It is really a feast for Bach lovers interested in hearing Cotik’s approach and sound ideas for the performance of this music.  Centaur’s release is certainly worth exploring and the performances here are worthy of repeated exploration and enjoyment.

     

     

  • The First French Revolution...Lully and the French Baroque

     

    The Versailles Revolution
    Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra/Barthold Kuijken
    Naxos 8.573868
    Total Time:  62:19
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

     

    In this, their second release this year on Naxos, the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra explores some lesser-known Baroque repertoire connected to the French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)  Their artistic director, Barthold Kujiken, is a noted early music interpreter and performer.  The music here helps provide aural connections to the influence Lully had on the next generation of Baroque composers, in this case Georg Muffat (1653-1704) and Marin Marais (1656-1728) in pieces composed in the last two decades of the 17th Century.

    The “revolution” of the title refers to the significant changes to opera, the formal codification of the “French” overture structure, and the elevation of the opera orchestra to a more significant role.  These aspects were part of the innovations Lully brought to his work, firmly in place in this opening suite of pieces from his opera, Roland composed the same year that Bach and Handel were born, 1685.  That is important because the dance forms Lully extracted for court performances from these operas (gigue, gavotte, air, march, menuet) would be the grist for the next generation’s orchestral suites.  One cannot help but reach for Bach’s orchestral suites to hear the adaptation of these dances in those works several decades later.  Lully would pull the more popular dance pieces from the opera into these suites that could be performed for dancing.  The seven movements here are all quite delightful dances.  The minor modes tend to point toward the more tragic element of the story which is heightened by the ornamental figurations of French style beautifully executed in these performances.  The overture opens slowly moving eventually to the dotted rhythm patterns that were part of the form.  Also interesting is the concluding chaconne with its intriguing harmonies and engaging thematic development.  Because the pieces come from across the opera, the key centers change which adds to the interest of the work.  The opera was among the last 4 he completed before he stabbed himself in the foot while conducting (in the days when a large stick was pounded on the floor to maintain tempo) and died of gangrene.

    The lesser known composer Georg Muffat was born in the Savoy region (now part of France).  He went to Paris around 1663.  It is not quite clear if he actually studied with Lully, but it is possible.  All the same, the work here from his 1698 collection Florilegium secundum certainly suggests modeling on the master composer’s style, if not direct influence.  A French-style overture, five-part string writing, and extended binary forms for the following dances here are all parallel approaches to Lully’s own pieces.  The Nobilis Juventus recorded here is a sort of miniature musical Grand Tour with the movements intending to illustrate various national musical qualities of Spain, Holland, England, Italy, and France.  The ornamental trills here are even more noticeable with the more detailed writing Muffat used.  These are often an important source to then apply similar playing to other works of Lully and composers from the period.  All the same, this is a delightful brief suite of dances.

    Marin Marais’ lengthier suite is from his 1696 opera Ariane et Bacchus, one of four tragic operas he composed.  The connection here to Lully is more direct as Marais actually played in Lully’s Versailles court orchestra, and even conducted it on occasion.  He was a noted bass viol teacher and performer even composing a number of works for the instrument.  The suite here falls into line with the other works well providing an additional opportunity to hear the various dances and airs from the opera in these invigorating instrumental interpretations.  Repeated listening allows one to hear how each of the younger composer’s built upon Lully’s achievements and made them their own.  One particularly beautiful moment in the Marais is the lullabye-like sommeil from Act III.

    The Indianapolis ensemble is a superb choice to explore this repertoire and the pieces here are all quite exquisite examples of the period.  Articulations are all quite clean and the group seems to move and breath their phrases as a single unit making for some rather exhilarating playing in the faster moments.  But it is really in the lyrical ideas where the music really shines with beauty and just the right touch of emotion.  It is not clear why Naxos has waited so long to release this (the recordings were made back in 2014) but those who enjoy Baroque music and exploring its repertoire will find this a welcome release, especially when coupled with the ensemble’s previous album (The Lully Effect), but this one may be the place to start.