in: Reviews

January 23, 2011

Kitchen Illuminates Bach


It is hard to know where or how to begin to review this emotionally and intellectually deeply moving set of concerts. I suppose first with the facts. The Cambridge Society for Early Music (CSEM), now in the middle of a “Bach Year,” is this week presenting a complicated series of five concerts — lecture recitals, really — by violinist and musical multimedia artist Nicholas Kitchen, comprising Bach’s complete Sonatas and Partitas (BWV 1001-1006), divided among churches in various locations. Part I includes the first two Sonatas and Partitas (in Carlisle and Salem, Jan. 20 and 22); Part II a performance of the famous Chaconne (from the second d-minor Partita) in the version copied by Johann Peter Kellner in 1726, followed by a performance of the same from Bach’s manuscript (1720), plus the third Sonata and Partita, followed by a question period (in Weston and Ipswich, Jan. 21 and 23). Part III is a single program of all six Sonatas and Partitas at once, in a larger space (Christ Church in Cambridge, Jan. 24), and omitting the special focus on the Chaconne. I heard performances of Part I and II in Carlisle and Weston, but will not be able to hear Part III, contrary to the presenters’ hopes, which is too bad for reasons I hope become clear below. Kitchen has done this at least once before at Park University in the Kansas City area, in February of 2009, where “Part III” was reported by an ecstatic, knowledgeable, anonymous blogger, with a copy of the first page of music of Bach’s manuscript and useful additional links, at Chamber Music Today.

Kitchen introduced everything he played with almost lyrical comments, well pitched, that were obviously the fruit of many long years of learning, analyzing, memorizing, and playing these pieces. Even more difficult, because these were not in fact class lectures, he could not assume that the audience in Part II concerts had heard what he had said in Part I. Thus he created his own artful narrative blend of repetition and new information. His comments were well informed by critical writing both early (Geminiani, Joachim, Brahms) and recent (Martin Jarvis). He urged the audience to hear the Cambridge concert (Part III), where the formal relationships with which he is so fascinated should more easily emerge in the context of all six works. His own extensive notes, written for the occasion, were published only this week on his Website (now linked from CSEM’s). The printed program included a nice essay on the Kellner copy of the Chaconne by musical paleographer and CSEM’s general manager Flynn Warmington, based on an article by Russell Stinson in Early Music (1985).

The two small churches (First Religious Society in Carlisle, built in 1811, and the Weston Congregational Church, built about forty years ago) were well filled with appreciative audiences, of which many did attend both presentations. Architecturally the churches could not have been more diverse, yet curiously they represented Kitchen’s approach to this music — influenced but unbounded by chronological strictures of either authenticity or virtuosity. Both sites were well chosen for these concerts, which indeed required a certain kind of intimacy for both speech and music of the solo violin. Their size also accommodated the clear view by all of Kitchen’s visual projections.

Kitchen, together with his Borromeo Quartet “family,” is well known for playing from a computer laptop, on a special stand, using an attached foot-pedal to turn pages that he held up by its cable like a mouse by its tail for us all to see. (For the curious, the model he uses, and the stand for his laptop is now available inexpensively.) Even more central to the impact of these concerts, Kitchen performs the Sonatas and Partitas from a digital replica of Bach’s own autograph manuscript projected on both his laptop and a large, backlit screen beside which he stood, slightly in its shadow. It was as though he was projecting his own playing through the musical text instead of the reverse.

If there were boundaries to Kitchen’s performance creation, these pages provided what there were. Of course, all performers represent music on a page somewhere, interpreting it as they will. But to perform from a visible manuscript in the composer’s own hand allows the audience to see and hear immediately what decisions Kitchen has made and how closely he conveys the implications of Bach’s unbelievably difficult notation, albeit in such a graceful hand. At one point Kitchen quipped (something like), “If your eyes tire of watching the music, just sit back and enjoy it!”

And enjoy we did. Kitchen doesn’t play a “Baroque violin” or use a “Baroque bow”; he plays a Guarneri del Gesù of 1730 (formerly in the possession of his teacher, Symon Goldberg), donated to the Library of Congress on the condition that he be allowed to play and travel with it. And after all, this instrument was made well before Bach’s death (in 1750), so Bach himself might even have been envious to hear these performances. He might have been jarred, however, by the fact that Kitchen tunes it not to A=415 or lower, but rather at A=441 (according to the computer software he used for tuning only once, humorously, to demonstrate some inscrutable graphics).

With such a sweet-toned instrument, Kitchen made beautiful, ravishing music, observing all Bach’s dynamic markings and slurs where notated, and with greater difficulty bowing the notes that are not slurred through the smoothest, yet fastest change-of-bowing technique imaginable, with nary a scratch or scrape. He didn’t just swipe at the lower melodic notes — they continued to ring as melody — but miraculously differentiated their tones from what was going on above. Robin Stowell has written a fine article in The Musical Times (1987) comparing about fifty editions of the Sonatas and Partitas, noting that, “the most puzzling of the enigmas are Bach’s original bowings, invariably regarded as impracticable by most editors.” What a joy to hear Nicholas Kitchen breeze through these problems with such beauty and confidence, with Bach’s manuscript (not some other edition) right in front of you!

Kitchen took no repeats except in Partita No. 3, where they were necessary for his formal considerations. Although he generally did not use vibrato, he did on occasion, particularly approaching cadences (even Bach enigmatically calls for it once). He takes wonderfully appropriate liberties, gently bending a line here and there with rubato totally foreign to the old dicta of regular tempi in Bach’s music — but always just right.

Stowell further remarks that, “Such performance problems posed by the richness of Bach’s polyphony, especially in the sonatas’ fugues, led [David] Boyden [in The History of Violin Playing from Its Origins to 1761 (1965)] to liken these works to Hamlet, as they are ‘full of the greatest beauties and bewildering enigmas of interpretation.’” At the end of his detailed comparisons, Stowell writes, “Violinists should be warned, however, that such a guide cannot be comprehensive and that no amount of editorial verbiage, symbols or other additions is adequate substitute for the personal creativity of a ‘tasteful’ performer.” Nicholas Kitchen clearly is that performer, with both the humility and brilliance of his approach to this deeply introspective and improvisatory music, as his performance reveals.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.


  1. I was priviliged to attend these same two concerts and agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Davidson’s comments.

    I urge anyone who loves the music of J.S. Bach to attend Mr. Kitchen’s Cambridge recital 7PM Monday evening, January 24 at Christ Church, just off of Harvard Square. The experience of hearing an artist of Mr. Kitchen’s stature bring such illuminating musicianship to these masterpieces would be enough incentive. But to experience all six of the Sonatas and Partitas in one sitting, plus being able to concurrently view Bach’s handwritten manuscript while listening, elevates the occasion to a must-attend.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — January 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm

  2. Just to hear Nicholas Kitchen play these Sonatas and Partitas is to enter another realm where time does not matter, only essence.
    I was uplifted and enthralled and encompassed. Go if you can.

    Comment by Ellen Johnson — January 23, 2011 at 9:59 pm

  3. I was lucky enough, on the advice of an old friend, to see him at the very intimate setting of the Salem Atheneaum. He was affable, knowledgeable and played brilliantly. The notes flowed so rapidly and cleanly from his violin I couldn’t take my eyes off his fingers, if only to make sure he hadn’t grown another hand. His expression was volatile and lyrical and present enough that even the children in the audience sat enraptured for the 13 minute long Chaconne.

    Comment by Nathan — January 24, 2011 at 11:20 am

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