Music for Peace, a concert series nested within the Massachusetts Peace Action, programmed all Bach at Harvard-Epworth Methodist Church in Cambridge, befitting the Ides of March, considering worldwide events and the organization’s mission. The evening featured harpsichordist Kay Ueyama, who traveled from Japan for this concert, and played throughout, along with baroque violinist Dana Maiben and soprano Junko Watanabe. The last three of JS’s 6 violin-harpsichord sonatas, most likely composed while Bach was Prince Leopold’s court Kapellmeister in Cöthen between 1717 and 1723, framed the event. Three arias from cantatas and the first partita for harpsichord rounded out the fare, aptly described by violinist Maiben as a marathon of an evening.
These days, the piano generally substitutes for harpsichord, which faded from view once the more robust pianoforte appeared, so a chance to hear an accomplished harpsichordist delighted. It’s significant that Prince Leopold commissioned Bach to find a harpsichord, and bought a Michael Mietke instrument in Berlin, which likely impelled him to write for it. The fortunate audience heard Ueyama and Maiben in the originally-intended versions of these violin-harpsichord sonatas in order, with arias interspersed between number 4 and 5, ending with the 6th.
In a major innovation, Bach wrote out the full harpsichord part, which stretched far beyond continuo, as the harpsichord collaborates with the violin on equal footing. While there is doubling with the violin’s voice, numerous conversations and ornamentations augment the works (and, also, optional viola da gamba, not heard tonight).
In the fourth sonata, BWV 1017 in C Minor, which surprises with an initial siciliano largo, an almost mournful lullaby, Maiben and Ueyama delivered with soft affection. The allegro features a reciprocal interplay between the violin and harpsichord that provides a joyful interlude, delightfully presented here. The adagio lent a gorgeous and restful sound. The second allegro pulsed energetically.
Junko Watanabe, known for her steady and pure voice, delivered fine singing in Hört ihr Volker (Listen, You People) from BWV 76, The Heavens Tell the Glory of God, and “Ich bin vergnugt in meinem Leiden (I am content in my sorrow),” from BWV 58, “Ah God, How Much Heartach. In both, Ueyama’s articulated harpsichord enhanced, and Maiben joined in the aria from BWV 58.
The 5th sonata, BWV 1018, in F Minor, was truly transformational for its time, in that the harpsichord has an independent voice from the first note of the largo. Maiben’s violin added a reflective mood and contrasting sound. The second movement allegro, with its crisp and clear voicing, delighted, though at times sounded slightly ragged. The third movement is written to permit the violinist to shine with many double stops, but can feel “etudinous,” sometimes the case here. Bachcast host John Hendren described the final vivace in the violin’s lowest range as “badass” violin, and in the nicest of ways, Maiben lived up to it.
More intricately complex than either the French or English suites, Bach partitas challenge the player, yet they provide the most nuanced and sumptuous experience for the listener. Indeed, Ueyama’s rendition of Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major for harpsichord (BWV 825) crowned the concert, each movement delivered with a firm but delicate precision. Her rendition of the iconic praeludium seduced and soothed, followed by delightful sounding of the allemande. She played the corrente better than I’ve ever heard it on harpsichord. And the last two movements, the sarabande and gigue excelled, though I prefer the gigue on the piano.
Watanabe shone in aria Die Schätzbarkeit der weiten Erden (the valuables of the world) from Cantata BWV 204, Ich bin in mir vergnugt. The panache and lyrical dialogue with violin and harpsichord complemented her pristine soprano.
The BWV 1019, Bach’s 6th violin-harpsichord sonata, in the warm key of G major, capping its 5 movements with sprightly allegros at both ends, finished this marathon without hitting the wall. In the first movement, the violin’s melodies are meant to overshadow the harpsichord, and need a bright and light touch with perhaps a louder sound than Maiben’s baroque violin could muster. The ornamentation provided in the second movement largo enchanted, and the middle allegro constituted generous give and take between the instruments. The chromatically tilted adagio has touching voicings for both the violin and harpsichord, played tenderly. The final allegro incisively hastened to its end, leaving the audience wanting more.
The group complied, and for an encore, they offered a well-received and heartfelt version of Handel’s pure and lovely Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle (HWV 205)—a savored confection after the big Bach meal.
Music Director Victor Rosenbaum’s thoughtfully provisioned Music for Peace will offer Dvořák’s Trio in E Minor (the “Dumky”)and Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F Minor on May 4th.