It is always an important event when a whole concert is devoted to Bach’s solo violin music, as was Daniel Stepner’s program of three Partitas for solo violin on Sunday afternoon, May 9. Stepner performed this “Mother’s Day Concert: Bouquet of Partitas,” at Remis Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts, where the Boston Museum Trio, one of the many ensembles in which he plays a starring role, is in residence. Stepner will play this program several more times in the next few weeks.
The program booklet featured a whole page about “The Musician,” but not a word about Bach and his partitas or the Baroque violin and bow, although there was an empty page. To many music-loving Bostonians, Stepner needs little introduction. He is, or has been, just about everywhere (Brandeis, Harvard, Longy, N.E.C., the Berkshires and Bard, where he runs Aston Magna Festival); and he has done just about everything (teaching, a solo career, 24 years as concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society and several Baroque ensembles, first violinist of the Lydian Quartet).
The three daunting Bach violin partitas — repertoire most professional violinists studied thoroughly in their teens — appear regularly on concert programs, and serious young violin prodigies record them as soon as they get their braces off. Why would someone with nothing left to prove expose oneself by doing this sort of daring program? The obvious answer is a love of Bach and the sublime and irresistible greatness of these pieces. Stepner has enjoyed a long career as a Baroque violinist and pedagogue and unquestionably feels he has insightful ideas to contribute about approaches to the text, about Baroque bowing, style, rubato, interpretation, and ornamentation. Stepping into his teaching mode, he made up for lack of program notes by speaking informally during the program.
He began with the famously exuberant Preludio of the joyous Partita III in E Major (BWV 1006). He then spoke for a few minutes about the provenance of the next five movements (the Gavotte was, for example, popular in the court of Louis XIV, “a great dancer”; the Bourée was danced in wooden clogs, …). “We humans have the need to dance, to hear dance,” he explained, which lets one travel vicariously to the many parts of the world where these dance movements originated.
The Partita I in B Minor (BWV 1002) consists of four movements, each of which has a “Double” or variation, which Stepner explained was like a shadow movement, or a Doppelganger.
Much that seemed to be nerves were shaken off during intermission, and Stepner played theViolin Partita in D minor (BWV 1004) with much more command than the first half of the program. Like Bach’s six keyboard partitas, the three violin partitas each have unique musical personalities and challenges; but the keyboard partitas have nothing approaching the magnificence, importance, or intricacy, of the last movement, the Chaconne. The sublime Chaconne (Ciaconna) was imported, he explained, by Conquistadors. With its 64 variations, it is on many musician’s short list of greatest pieces ever written, and no doubt Stepner has performed and rethought it for decades. Like the rest of this partita, it received a thoughtful, lovely reading. For the first time at this concert, I doffed my critic’s hat, stopped thinking about Baroque musical matters, and just listened. Mother’s Day gifts don’t get any better than the Bach Chaconne — on any instrument.