Bach: Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano – Makarski/Jarrett (ECM New Series 2230/31)

Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano

Johann Sebastian Bach
Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano

Michelle Makarski violin
Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded November 2010 at American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
An ECM Production

J. S. Bach’s Six Sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord (BWV 1014-1019) are not often recorded on piano, but few masters of the modern keyboard could make the combination work so articulately as Keith Jarrett. Although he might just as well have opted for harpsichord, as he did in duet with violist Kim Kashkashian for a benchmark recording of Bach’s Three Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord (ECM New Series 1501), this time around the piano seems an intuitive choice. And for a partner, Michelle Makarski is ideal. Not only because she and Jarrett had been playing these pieces together on their own time for two years before stepping into the studio, but more importantly because she recognizes the power of an unfettered performance that serves the music over ego.

Makarski and Jarrett

Written in the early 1720s during Bach’s Cöthen period, which encompassed both the tragedy of his first wife’s death and the triumph of his Brandenburg Concerti, these sonatas have rarely sounded more tessellated. There is a rounded quality to Jarrett’s pianism, which cushions Makarski’s pin-like precision. Thus, to the common characterization of the violin and keyboard as equal partners in these pieces, Makarski and Jarrett seem to say, “Let’s just see where the music leads us.” And indeed, spotlights of favor fall on either instrument at different points throughout the cycle.

Half of the sonatas are in major keys (Nos. 2 in A Major, 3 in E Major, and 6 in G Major), the other half in minor (Nos. 1 in b minor, 4 in c minor, and 5 in f minor). The majors are distinguished by their dulcet introductions and masterful harmonies, but each has its own idiosyncrasies. Where No. 2 balances spiraling architecture with pointillist delicacies, the astonishing No. 3 boasts interlocking color schemes and a heartrending Adagio, in which the violin emotes with all the history of a folksong. Yet the Sonata No. 6 is the most maturely constructed of them all. From its opening courtship of wing and wind, through the uniquely solo keyboard meditation at sonata center, and on to the boisterous finish, it follows a downright linguistic arc of development.

It is sometimes tempting to treat slow movements in Baroque repertoire as filler. Not so here, for in them Bach has cut some of the most precious jewels of his entire oeuvre. In addition to their robustness and lyrical integrity, Makarski’s uniquely nuanced vibrato lends them sanctity over ornament. Whether shining through Jarrett’s laden branches in the Andante of the Sonata No. 1 or chaining double stops through the Adagio of the Sonata No. 5, she treats each draw of the bow as a song in and of itself. Jarrett, by contrast, excels in the faster portions, showing in the final Allegro of No. 1 why his sense of rhythm is so acutely suited to Bach. The two find deepest equilibrium in the Sonata No. 4, which is like one giant helix, unbreakable and spinning.

The album’s booklet contains no notes—rare for an ECM classical release. Then again, the music has all the notes it needs. These roll off the fingers of the present interpreters like fluent speech from the tongue, creating a book on the first listen, the binding of which will only strengthen as its cover is opened time and again.

(To hear samples of Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano, click here.)

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