During last night’s Guitar Department Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one of the students performed the final movement (Chaconne) from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 D minor partita for solo violin. This is a familiar piece in the classical guitar repertoire, particularly since Andrés Segovia prepared a transcription of it, which became one of his most famous recordings. However, as David Tanenbaum, Chair of the Guitar Faculty, observed while introducing the program, Segovia added to the music Bach had composed, particularly for the sake of reinforcing the bass line. (Ferruccio Busoni did the same thing for his piano version, but on a much grander scale.)
Tanenbaum made this observation before announcing (with what seemed to be a hint of pride) that last night’s student had prepared the Chaconne by reading directly from the original violin part. The result was quickly apparent to any listener familiar with both violin performances and Segovia’s version. Where the latter had sought the full richness of guitar sonorities, what one might call the music in service to the instrument, last night’s performance was all about the instrument in service to the music. One experienced the same transparency of voices interleaved in counterpoint through the compounding of embellishments on the Chaconne theme that one would encounter in a faithful violin performance. The attentive listener could still enjoy the guitarist’s technical skills, just as one would do when a violinist played the same music; but just as important (if not more so) was all the inventiveness that Bach had packed into this single movement (whose duration is basically the same as taken by all four of the movements that precede it, when the partita is played in its entirety).