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Michelle Makarski and Keith Jarrett honor Bach's spirit with modern instruments

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Yesterday I wrote a piece on my San Francisco site about approaches to honoring the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach while performing his music on modern instruments. That intellectual exercise prepared me well for listening to the ECM New Series recording of the six Bach sonatas for violin and keyboard (BWV 1014–1019) performed by Michelle Makarski on violin and Keith Jarrett on piano. My only regret about this experience is how long it took me to get around to it, since this album was released last September.

Before discussing the performances themselves, however, I feel it necessary to provide a bit of background for the music. While a strong case can be made that Bach composed these six sonatas as a set, fixing a date for them is more difficult, particularly since it is likely that he subjected them to subsequent revision in the years before his death. My personal opinion is that they were first written during the time when Bach served as Kapellmeister for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, which would be between 1717 and 1723. Because the Prince was a Calvinist, who felt that elaborate music had no place in worship, this was a particularly fruitful period for Bach as a composer of secular music.

In addition, the Prince was a musician and had studied both the violin and the harpsichord. I feel this is significant because these sonatas were all written for violin and keyboard, not violin and continuo. Each is a study of ways in which a violinist and a keyboardist can get together to make music as equal partners, rather than having the keyboardist serve merely as an accompanist to support the violinist’s virtuosity. Because this is true of all six of the sonatas, this is another reason to regard them as a set. One can thus imagine that Bach composed them, knowing that his patron would be interested in playing either of the two parts, depending on whom he happened to be playing with at the time.

I would also suggest that, like so many of Bach’s other instrumental compositions, these are written with pedagogy in mind. If the Prince was enlightened where music was concerned, then he would have been amenable to the proposition that making music is always a matter of “lifelong learning;” and he would have received this music with that premise in mind. Were that the case, then he probably also would have valued the collection highly. Not only does it provide abundant opportunities for the cultivation of both technical proficiency and the capacity for inventiveness (the two “pillars” of Bach’s approach to pedagogy); but also it frames those opportunities in the setting of exchanges between two performers, rather than the skills of a single performer.

If we are then to take those last three paragraphs as an outline of “the spirit of Bach” that resides in these six sonatas, then I can state with confidence that Makarski and Jarrett have done a delightful job of honoring that spirit. Jarrett approaches his piano keyboard with an appropriately light touch through which all of the intricacies of counterpoint that reside in both the work of his two hands and the exchanges with the violin line emerge with crystalline clarity. This should not surprise anyone, given that Jarrett has recorded on both piano and harpsichord. Whether he is playing Bach or Dmitri Shostakovich, he knows what the music is trying to “say;” and he knows how to approach the keyboard to make sure it is “said’ with all due clarity.

Where the interplay with Makarski is concerned, what is most interesting is how Bach seamlessly shifts between having the instrumentalists move independently and having them come together in sublimely harmonized homophony. If this music amounts to a metaphorical conversation, then there is so much agreement between the conversants that, every now and then, they find themselves saying the same thing together (in harmony, as it were). Thus, this is music that lives not only in the objective world of Bach’s pedagogical goals but also in the social world of the very nature of how involved musicians can interact with each other, principles of engagement that are as valid in the jamming of a jazz combo as they are in the performance of eighteenth-century chamber music.

Perhaps I should not be so apologetic about my tardiness. After all, just about everyone probably has someone on the Christmas list who is avid about Bach’s music. This is the sort of recording that will not only satisfy that enthusiasm but also probably cast it in some new lights.

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