It is always a tour de force when an artist takes on a composer's entire oeuvre for a particular instrument or ensemble (for example a musical marathon of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas). Such a feat is both an act of love and courage - and in most cases entirely unnecessary from a musical point of view since most sets of pieces were never intended to be played seriatim over the course of one, or a series, of concerts. Such was the case with Nicolas Kitchen's performance at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church of the set of six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin by J. S. Bach. Kitchen played from memory, an impressive feat in and of itself, that tripped him up occasionally, but forgivably, in some of the faster and hairier passages.
In what has now become the customary comments from the stage, Kitchen recounted the growth of his love and mastery of these works, from their use as obligatory exercises for any aspiring professional violinist to a passionate study of their theoretical and technical intricacies and emotive depth. Kitchen chose to play the six works in the order in which they occur in Bach's autograph and as they are usually performed in recordings, although there is no evidence that Bach conceived the order of the pieces as obligatory nor that he ever intended them to be played as a set. Kitchen views the order as creating an emotional journey from darkness into light (The first four pieces are in minor keys, the last two in major.) Moreover, he suggests that the famous Chaconne, the final movement of the fourth work, the d minor Partita, may have been composed as a memorial to Bach's first wife, Maria Barbara.
With this scheme in mind, Kitchen performed the Sonata No. 1 in g, the Partita No. 1 in b, the Sonata No 2 in a and the Partita No, 2 in d all on Friday's concert, in order to end with the Chaconne which he regards as the pivotal point between the emotional descent of the minor pieces and the joyous conclusion of the two final major pieces. Despite a masterful performance with near-perfect intonation and special attention to the clarifying contrapuntal lines, this overall conception of the set forced him into a corner: Playing the four the works in one standing is exhausting and by the time he had reached the all-important Chaconne, he was clearly tired and unable to sustain the energy with which he had started. As a result, when he reprised the Chaconne as an opening for Sunday's concert of the Sonata No. 3 in C and the Partita No. 3 in E, it was an entirely different kettle of fish that succeeded technically and musically and in an almost new conception.
Trained primarily as an organist, Bach was also a virtuoso violinist, a role he held during his tenure as Kapellmeister in the small principality of Anhalt-Cöthen where he led an ensemble of brilliant instrumentalists. This period saw the completion of most of his instrumental music, including the Brandenburg Concerti, the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier , the Orgel Büchlein , the French Suites, etc. In the works for solo violin, Bach transformed the instrument to convey the harmonic and contrapuntal richness of the organ. The problem was that the latter instrument is capable of sustaining a pitch indefinitely, thereby rendering simultaneously audible all the contrapuntal lines. By their very nature, string instruments cannot sustain several lines of music at once and are reduced to briefly touching on the counterpoint and the harmonies with brief flips of the bow on another string. It is the listener's ear that must hold in memory those brief tones and "fill in" the lines mentally. That Bach was capable of giving the illusion of full polyphony - that is making a violin sound like an organ - is an accomplishment of indescribable genius. The principal strength of Kitchen's performance was his meticulous attention to all the polyphonic lines, thereby making the most of this musical illusion.
Like the Well-Tempered Clavier , the set of Violin Sonatas and Partitas has a somewhat didactic function and reflects Bach's penchant for neat structures and symmetry. The three sonatas are all in the four-movement so-called "church sonata" form, consisting of a general slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of movements, each one headed by a tempo marking. The three partitas are, by contrast, in the form of dance suites with a variable number of movements. The sonatas tend to be more formal and complex both harmonically and contrapuntally. The partitas contain the flashiest showpieces - except for the Chaconne that is both a dance and a contrapuntal masterpiece.
In playing these complex and often fiendishly difficult works, it is hard to have your cake and eat it too. Kitchen's interpretation was decidedly academic; he had obviously studied the pieces in analytical detail and clearly wanted to convey their contrapuntal intricacies and nuances to his audience. In doing so, he often conveyed less "feeling" than some listeners may have wanted. This was clearly a performance for the musical cognoscenti. A stunning exception was Sunday's repeat performance of the Chaconne into which Kitchen - now rested - poured everything he had on all levels.