Frank Arnold / Kolja Blacher

Bach: Partitas for Violin Nos. 2 & 3

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Something about the seemingly mysterious nature of Bach's partitas and sonatas for solo violin (as well as his solo cello works) seems to attract speculation and experimentation. Perhaps it's the uniqueness of this music within Bach's oeuvre: most of his music, whatever universal scope it may reach, was written for specific purposes and fell into well-established genres. Indeed, its "everyday-ness" is part of its appeal. Actually, Bach also took up a longstanding tradition with the violin partitas and exploited it in his typically mind-blowing, exhaustive way, it's just that the violin works of Biber and Walter are not so well known to ordinary listeners. The latest entry in the why-just-leave-the-partitas-alone sweepstakes is this recording from German-born, American-trained violinist Kolja Blacher and speaker Frank Arnold, whose idea the project seems to have been. What you get are phrases of the Partita No. 2 for solo violin in D minor, BWV 1004, and Partita No. 3 for solo violin in E major, BWV 1006, interspersed with spoken poetry by Andreas Gryphius and other German poets of the 17th century. Non-German-speaking readers of the booklet may wish to know that although the essay is given in English as well as German, the poetry is not, making the experience for them a bit reminiscent of the football player in Don DeLillo's novel End Zone who attends a class in the untellable: the students read German literature, but those who speak German are denied admission. The Chaconne finale of the Partita No. 2 is not given any texts, either, because, as Arnold said, "it is as if the inexorable march of time itself has been halted, as if the spheres have become intermingled, as if death and life have become reconciled," or simply because the forward motion of the work doesn't admit of such treatment. If what you hear in these pieces is transience and you speak German, you may well be intrigued with this performance. But the biggest issue is that it's questionable whether Bach would have made any sense of it. These poems come from the middle of the 17th century, and it's not at all clear that, as Arnold claimed, they were "essential to the intellectual climate" in which Bach grew up. Fashions changed quickly, even then, and the teenaged Bach knew a Germany that had been rebuilt from the devastation of the Thirty Years' War that was reflected in the gloomy tone of this poetry. The poetry relevant to Bach's intellectual world was the new pietism of his time, not works like these. The speculative listener may enjoy this release, the confirmed Bach lover perhaps less so.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
1 6:19
2 2:26
3 5:39
4 1:53
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
5 5:36
6 4:00
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
7 16:02
Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006
8 4:09
9 2:25
Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006
10 5:19
11 3:32
12 5:35
13 2:34
14 3:16
blue highlight denotes track pick