When asked why Bach’s Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord (BWV 1014-1019) are heard so infrequently, violinist and Aston Magna Festival Artistic Director Daniel Stepner reminded, “Because they’re so hard!” Bach takes two instruments and provides a range of musical ideas, affects, textures and challenges.
Bach was an accomplished violinist in addition to his better-known mastery of the keyboard. He doesn’t give either instrument much time to relax throughout these six works, composed during his Cothen years (or his Leipzig ones, depending on the historian). Instead of a violin lead over keyboard accompaniment, Bach designed these works as trios for violin and right hand of the keyboard over a left hand bass, all in several combinations including dense contrapuntal trios, a bumping harpsichord solo in the sixth sonata and several aria-like moments for the violin. Fast movements display expressiveness as well as virtuosity, and slow ones test technique as well as lyricism. Ever heard a cascade of arpeggios sing, or a whole note resound not just beautifully but grippingly?
Before his own performance of these works for the Aston Magna Music Festival on Thursday night in Brandeis University’s Slosberg Auditorium, Stepner mentioned his imagining Bach in the afterlife, regretting that he didn’t live long enough to write Romantic music. Perhaps an ironic observation from the director of one of the longest running festivals devoted to early music, yet still not as much of a juxtaposition as Stepner’s “Romantic,” at time mannered approach to Bach’s transparent, robust structures. Right from the beginning, with the first movement of the first sonata, the violinist stepped in and out notes with chiaroscuro dynamics. Perhaps calculated for dramatic effect, instead it came across as self-conscious, distracting from the impact of slow movements, which even Bach’s son and tough critic Carl Philipp Emanuel said, “could not be composed in a more singing style.”
The opening adagio of the third sonata was a welcome departure. With his eyes closed and playing up to the rafters, Stepner seemed more relaxed, playing with fulsome tone and organic phrasing. His whispering approach also energized the fourth sonata’s Adagio, with its introspective feel and dark registers. Yet moments such as the sixth sonata’s Largo included several fussy dynamic hairpins. The first Sonata’s Andante and second sonata’s Presto were bogged down by stilted attacks and a forced tone. At other points, especially fast movements, the music seemed to simply get away from Stepner, resulting in the rhythmic snarls for the concluding Allegro of the fourth sonata or blurry notes replacing the incisive snap of the third sonata’s conclusion.
Harpsichordist Peter Sykes took an equally engaged but refreshingly direct approach for his dual role. Bass lines were rock steady but with plenty of room to breathe between them. On top, right hand lines partnered sensitively with Stepner, providing a clean, spontaneous-sounding foil to the violin. Movements such as the second sonata’s Dolce featured Sykes getting under and within the violin, filling things out for a real trio feel. The solo harpsichord movement of the sixth sonata was a show-stealer: Sykes’ steady tempo, with slight, effective leans into key parts of the line and subtle accents on the beat, were captivating. With the lute stop engaged and simple figures in the left hand, prickly runs impressed without turning showy. The movement seemed more like a story that started innocently but grew in intricacy as well as wisdom. Sykes’ instrument, a copy of a double manual German model built by Carl Fleischer in 1716 and reconstructed by Alan Winkler of Medford, MA produced a rich sound that overcame the dry acoustic, with a silky top and a resonant lower register that never turned muddy. It was a pleasure to hear Bach on this instrument and to hear these often overlooked works. There just could have been slightly more of Bach to hear at this performance.