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Unaccompanied, Embellished Bach from Stepner


When listening to performances of Baroque music these days, my first interest is not in “interpretation” but in the actual notes played. Bach and other composers of his time gave us plenty of indication of how they expected their music to be played or sung, and it was seldom a literal reading of what they wrote on paper. Thurston Dart once wrote that a performer of Handel’s time who played the music exactly as written would have been considered “a dull dog indeed.”

Fortunately, more and more performers of our time are getting with the program and introducing their own embellishments and ornamentation into the music. This tendency is not limited to period instrument players; such mainstream modern instrument players as flutist Paula Robison and pianist Vladimir Feltsman have given us recordings and performances with imaginative elaborations of Baroque scores.

Violinist Daniel Stepner is one of America’s leading period instrument performers. As violinist, and as music director of the June-July Aston Magna Festival, he has led and played a wonderful variety of music in very stylish concerts and recordings. This weekend, June 17-19, he is standing alone on stage with his violin, confronting some of the greatest works of Bach in a way the composer would have recognized.

Stepner’s program is the three Partitas for unaccompanied violin of Bach, and his own arrangement of the Chromatic Fantasy (minus fugue). Nobody can complain about such arrangements, knowing how many Bach made of his own works and others. And with the freedom Stepner applies to this music–which should sound as improvisatory as he makes it sound–we know we are hearing something genuine and worthwhile.

The same is true of his playing of the Partitas. Stepner plays them in the order Nos. 3, 1, and 2, presumably to end the performance with the monumental Ciaccona. But in starting with No. 3, he also gets to serve notice that these are not going to be ordinary-sounding versions of Bach. His use of terrace dynamics in the opening Preludio of No. 3 is strict enough to rivet the listener, and his delineation of dynamics and counterpoint throughout the Partita are revelatory.  Playing a Baroque-configured violin brings down the sound level somewhat. But I remember hearing Sergiu Luca, who made the first recording of Bach’s unaccompanied violin works on a Baroque instrument, saying that playing a violin with a smaller sound freed him up to play full out instead of having to watch out for overstressing the music.

I would have liked even more elaboration of the text in this work than Stepner provided, but he made up for that with the way he shifted Doubles in the Partita No. 1 to serve as radical repeats. He did similarly radical, and gratifying, paraphrasing of his own in the Sarabanda of the Partita No. 2. In a way, he de-monumentalized the Ciaccona, emphasizing the dance rhythms more strongly than the dramatic contrasts most violinists dwell on. But Stepner’s choice created its own, highly convincing drama. This concert left me feeling that I’d had an authentic experience of Bach.

The performance I heard was the second of a run of three, at Olin Auditorium, Bard College. On the 17th, Stepner had played the program at Slosberg Auditorium, Brandeis University; on the 19th, he plays it at Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington.

Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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