Richard Luby first performed the complete cycle of J. S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin in an unheated Historical Playmakers Theatre on a cold, drizzling Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1985. He used a Baroque violin with gut strings and an historically-informed low pitch (A=415). The low temperature and high humidity combined with a couple of broken strings played havoc with musical continuity with frequent pauses between movements to retune. This presentation was done in one evening.

Luby’s current revisitings of the works were spread over two concerts and involved the use of a modern instrument and pitch. The January 20 concert  took place in a properly heated Playmakers Theatre which kept cold, wet weather at bay.

This Concert II in the same venue found near summer weather outside.

Luby’s thought-provoking article Bach’s Two Worlds: Spiritual and Secular? appeared as a CVNC preview and served as the program notes. This, as well as Robin Stowell’s article “Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin” in Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach, was used for this review. Both sources point out that the sonatas are modeled after the “slow-fast-slow-fast” movement structure of the early sonata da chiesawhile the partitas follow the pattern of secular sonata da camera which consists of a series of dance movements. Luby regards each sonata as a “sermon” and each partita as “symbolic life-dances.” Each sonata is paired with the partita which follows it. He sees the established order as part of an over-arching structure. The mood proceeds from the “stern” sermon of the First Sonata and struggle of the First Partita to be followed by the “mid-life complexities” of the middle Sonata and Partita ultimately ending in “music of optimism and quiet joy” of the last pair. Luby stressed three aspects or models Bach has drawn upon, the Theory of Affects, Classical rhetoric and oratory, and buoyant, resilient, or “springy” rhythms.

This concert opened with Partita No. 2 in D minor, S.1004, which carries forward the “mid-life complexities of Sonata No. II played January 20. The five-movement work opens with four conventional dance movements but is capped by the mighty “Ciaccona” which surpasses the duration of the previous four movements. According to Stowell, it consists of “64 variations of a single open-ended four-bar phrase built around the descending tetrachord (as used by Biber in his Passacaglia).” A central passage in the major key is sandwiched between two passages in the minor. Bach demands almost every resource of the violinist’s technical skill and interpretative depth.

Sonata No. 3 in C, S.1005, begins solemnly but progresses to a mood of “joy and exultation.”

According to Stowell, the Third Partita in E, S.1006, has “only one of the four dances that form the nucleus of the normal suite, incorporating instead a long prelude and some of the optional, lighter movements sometimes inserted after the Sarabande.” In contrast to the Italian dances of the first two partitas, those of Partita III are French. Many historically-informed articles have stressed the close relationship between the dance movements of Bach’s partitas and the actual dances of the period. Visits in the 1980s by the New York Baroque Dance Company, founded by Catherine Turocy, reinforced this locally.

A good percentage of the January 20 audience returned to enjoy the many virtues of Luby’s approach and the high quality of his technical execution of Partita II and III sandwiched around Sonata III. To emphasize the magical transition between the end of Partita II and “the rising from the ashes” of the opening of Sonata III, the violinist asked for applause to be withheld. Alas this was slightly hurt by the only mishap of the concert. Luby’s E string snapped during the last third of a superb unfolding of the Ciaccona! Luby replayed enough to carry through his original intent.

Throughout the concert he played with good, solid intonation and a fine, warm tone. His phrasing invariably gave room for the music to breathe without the slightest hint of sentimentality. His dance movements were especially well done with stylistically apt rhythms. Multiple stops came off beautifully. This was a very satisfying pair of concerts!