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Review: A Universe Of One: The Solo Sonatas And Partitas

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The performance of any movement of Bach’s sonatas or partitas for solo instruments is no mean feat.

The partitas for keyboard and keyboard and his sonatas for cello explore the extremities of each instrument’s range and the variety of its sound. This is to say nothing of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, which challenge even the most able of violinists. Madeleine Easton gave Sydney audiences the benefit of her thoughtful approach to these works, over four concerts in Paddington and Chatswood. This reviewer had the pleasure of attending the final three.

The first began with the distinctive improvisatory flair of the Grave from the second Sonata in A minor (BWV 1003). It is an exercise in double-stopping, as is the Fuga. The fugue gives more an impression of a keyboard fugue than of anything conceived with the violin in mind. Hence, perhaps the title, a Universe of One; here is music that transcends the medium in which it is performed. The style of the fugue is redolent of that of a similarly chromatic fugue, which features also as the second movement of the partita for lute (or lautenwerk) – BWV 997. Easton remarkably maintained the melodic drive of the subject and its variations among what often seemed like a knotty thicket of voices. Her performance, however, was best at the more free-flowing melodic parts, which she despatched as though with the flick of a wrist. Of particular note is the final cadence – a fiery melodic line that rushes from one octave to another in the space of a two bars. The Andante is marked by a persistent bass, and despite some occasional slips, the dynamic control was impeccable. The repeat of this performance on Sunday was even more refined.

Then came Mikaela Oberg on recorder, John Ma on violin, Anthea Cottee on cello and Nathan Cox on harpsichord. The first movement is delightful, and gives the impression of a wistful, almost reminiscent, smile. The Allegro that follows featured a sprightly cello accompaniment which Cottee took into her stride and made it sing. John Ma’s expressive abilities on the violin are matchless, and he interspersed his playing with gushing but selective hints of vibrato. But the third movement was all Oberg’s. It had all the charm of that sort of French baroque music depicting les tendres plainte, and a fitting sighing effect was given by subtle ornamentations on the recorder. There was a delightful interplay between all instruments in the fourth movement and the final is a lively gigue. This faultless performance was a highlight.

The night closed with the momentous Partita in D minor for solo violin, known for its famous chaconne. It features much the same momentum as the Grave that opened the A minor sonata, and given its persistent melodic drive, Easton shone here. The second movement was forceful, almost shining; the third was a reflective, almost melancholic, meditation, and foreshadows the chaconne. The fourth again showed Easton’s mastery of fast-paced rhythms and of the dynamic control that unites the sinuous lines of the melodies in this gigue, especially in the B-section. Then comes the chaconne. The dramatism of this masterpiece has rightly enthralled generations of composers and performers (not the least being Gustav Leonhardt) who have done their best to arrange it for various instruments without losing the desperate, yearning, effect it has when played on the violin. An apocryphal story is that the chaconne was composed by Bach as a tombeau for his wife, who died when Bach was travelling in Carlsbad. It certainly has the hallmarks of another supposed tombeau by Bach – the gavotte from the English Suite in G minor (with its characteristic drumroll in the bass). Much like that gavotte, the chaconne transfigures itself suddenly into major mode in the hushed ‘B-section’. This is a sudden change, not only in key but also in dynamics, and there were some slips in what is a very raw and exposed moment. But Easton soon resumes in full flight, negotiating the soaring chromatic passages and the persistent arpeggios that traverse several strings. It is fitting that this partita also featured in the finale in Chatswood.

The Saturday concert had the same structure – a solo sonata, a chamber piece, and a solo partita. The solo sonata was the third one, in C major (BWV 1005). It opens, eerily, with a series of soft wavering notes, and given the softness with which it must be played, there were some croaky slips. But this is one of the harder pieces, featuring as it does an unrelenting series of double and triple stopping all while calling on the performer to maintain a melodic line. The highlight for me was the fugue. It is hard not to leave the concert whistling the fugue subject and this is in part thanks to the lyricism with which Easton performed it.

The chamber piece was Leclair’s Trio sonata Op 4 No 3 in D minor, featuring Easton and Ma on violin, Cottee on cello and Cox on harpsichord. It continued the plaintive tone of the Handel from the preceding night. The second movement was a lively discourse between Ma and Easton at her best.  

Then followed the third partita for solo violin, in E major. The opening sinfonia is the same as that which opens BWV 29 – Wir danken dir, Gott wir danken dir – although it is there scored for obbligato organ. And how fitting, as its structure stretches upwards, as though reaching for the divine. Easton performed this with shining precision, and the tempo was breath-taking. The other highlight was the Gavotte en rondeau, which Easton performed with a fitting dance tempo.

The final concert, in Chatswood, began with the Sonata in G minor. My personal favourite from that sonata is the fugue, which Gustav Leonhardt arranged for keyboard, and which centres around an elegantly simple subject that develops into the tortured triple-stopping passages with which we had become familiar over the past three nights of this spectacular exploration of Bach’s genius.

Alessandro Scarlatti’s Concert in C for recorder, 2 violins, cello and continuo came next. The fugue is decidedly Italianate in taste, and its structure is light, tasteful, almost galant. Oberg’s performance, yet again, was faultless, effortless and expressive. It was also a treat to hear Cox, so often on continuo, feature as a soloist for Couperin’s Les Barricades Mysterieuses, the style of which has an affinity with the lute, as did many of the sonatas and partitas performed in this series.

This sort of music is not common fare. Every moment in each sonata and partita was given its opportunity to sing. In the parts one can glimpse the whole, as though in a fractal. Hence the title – A Universe of One.

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