While Bach Week was kicking off at Nichols Auditorium in Evanston, violinist Rachel Barton Pine and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour were giving a Bach recital of their own at the Logan Center in Hyde Park, performing two duos and two solo works by the baroque master. While their performance had many enjoyable moments, overall it was a bit rough. Vinikour, though not perfect, held his own pretty well at the harpsichord, but Pine’s violin generated lots of squeaks and slid-over notes, interrupting those moments of joy.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote many works for harpsichord and violin, solo and duo. Part of the challenge for a duo is blending the harpsichord, which, as a plucked string instrument, has a sparse, tinny sound and only two levels of volume, with a warm sounding violin that has a huge dynamic range. Having recorded Bach’s violin and harpsichord duos for a 2018 release on Chicago’s own Cedille Records, Pine and Vinikour are well practiced in overcoming this challenge. Especially remarkable was how well Pine’s violin sounded with Vinikour’s harpsichord, even when she was playing loud. Her sound never completely swamped the harpsichord.
Their ability to blend was shown immediately with the opening slow Adagio of the Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord in b-minor, BWV 1014. Vinikour set the stage with two-note chords in the right hand and a line of continuo on the left, creating three contrasting melodic lines. Pine quietly joined in with a single note that soon built up to great intensity. Before long, she was playing two-note chords creating an additional two melodies, which resulted in a very typical Bach style of five interweaving tunes. Notwithstanding Pine’s challenges Friday night, it still came off well. Their next two movements were enjoyable, but Pine and Vinikour were particularly effective at capturing the finale’s exuberance, especially the sudden pauses and momentum breaks.
Up next was Pine’s performance of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in d-minor, BWV 1004. If asked to name a single favorite work by Bach, this reviewer would name this one. A lot of attention deservedly gets paid to the emotionally intense chaconne that ends the work—a movement longer than the other four movements combined. However, the first four movements form an integral part of the overall piece, serving as more than just an extended introduction. The chaconne starts with a very simple theme that’s varied over 30 times, during which Bach creates a level of intensity and passion that has only rarely ever been equaled. While fascinating from a pure musical perspective, the partita places extreme technical demands on the performer. Bach’s ability to weave multiple melodies into a passage played by a single, four-stringed instrument, all of which cannot be played at exactly the same time, is remarkable, even though performances inevitably seem labored, especially when the material goes up-tempo.
Notwithstanding her challenges that carried over to this work, Pine handled the opening four movements well. She showed fluidity and spectacular dynamic control in the slow Allemanda that opens the work. She gave a nice interpretation to the fast Corrente that followed. As intended, her performance of the opening four movements nicely teed off the Ciaccona, but to this reviewer, she opened that movement a bit too fast and harsh. A slower, gentler approach allows for greater contrasts to the intense material that ensues. Once beyond the beginning, however, she played it wonderfully, especially the lengthy section in D-major.
Following intermission, Vinikour performed the lengthy and involved Overture in the French Style in b-minor, BWV 831. This enormous work, essentially a super long partita, comprises an overture followed by seven dance style movements similar to those used in many other Bach suites. It starts with a slow section of somber chords separated by rapid mini phrases. After several minutes, a faster three-voice fugue breaks in, but the somber beginning returns.
Being in a minor key, the overture and much of the work has a brooding feeling that Vinikour marvelously captured. It is always interesting to hear the shifts between the softer passages played from the harpsichord’s upper keyboard that pluck a single set of strings and the louder passages played from the lower keyboard that pluck a double set of strings. Vinikour shifted seamlessly, creating the desired effect of a soloist being backed by a larger ensemble.
The program ended with Pine rejoining Vinikour onstage for Bach’s Sonata in E-major, BWV 1016. While in a major key, this work’s lengthy and slow third movement in c-sharp minor added more weight to what had already been heavy evening. Pine and Vinikour captured the mood while carefully passing the melody and chords back and forth.
As an encore, Pine and Vinikour played Bach’s lovely Cantabile in G major, a work that Bach originally intended for a Sonata in G major but that he rejected in the final score. It was the concert’s main vehicle for something soft and delicate.