All but the last of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six sonatas for violin and harpsichord (BWV 1014-19) commence with slow movements of intense feeling—music of implication and inference, the emotions no less real for their apparent lack of specificity. There is pleasure in the paradox: even without a text they sing.
The first sonata begins with the keyboard alone for four expansive bars. t the start of collection the violin is silent, listening to the sighing paired figures of the keyboardist’s right hand. In early eighteenth-century sonatas like these the harpsichordist had generally improvised supporting chords with his right hand above the written-out bass line taken by the left. But Bach the accompanist was famous for devising countermelodies on the spot. Now codifying that skill on the composed page, he provides an “obbligato part”—an independent, fully worked-out right-hand line that elevates the keyboardist from accompanist to equal. Why shouldn’t the violinist be made to listen to this landmark moment, a new genre being forged?
After dutifully waiting its turn, the violin insinuates itself into this pathos-saturated atmosphere on a high f-sharp held out for a bar-and-a-half until finally unleashing a torrent of quick, intensely expressive notes—a challenge? a confession? a cry for help?—that spills downward to the tonic pitch of b-natural then leaps up the octave and holds again. Plaintive stasis alternates with terse outpourings in the violin above the relentless pleadings of the keyboard: profound melancholy as a form of delectation.
Bach will repeat something of this approach in the fifth sonata in F Minor. This begins as a soliloquy for keyboard alone in three carefully constructed contrapuntal parts, the discourse tending downward. Rather than entering from above as in the first sonata, the violin speaks from its G string (the lowest on the instrument), a ghostly reminder emanating as if from midst of the keyboard ruminations that this is a piece for two to play.
The second and third sonatas move us to bright major keys (A and E). The second is marked dolce (sweet). This confection begins as a three-part canon, the violin first delivering the theme that is taken up by the keyboardists’ right hand and then the left. Good taste needn’t shun a touch of complexity. The erudition does not cloy. Unlike the haughty fast fugues and dark final Adagio of the set, this counterpoint sounds forthright, even fragile.
The assured violin ascent at the outset of the third sonata is lofted by the keyboard’s booming bass pedal point and the gusts from the churning right hand figure heard four times in a variety of configurations separated by rests. The partners share in an eloquence so confident that it could almost be mistaken for arrogance.
The first movement of the fifth sonata is a more generic affair, a lilting siciliano in which the violin sings above a steady arpeggiated accompaniment. Bach’s reliance on convention does not sap the heartfelt immediacy of this Largo.
The opening of the sixth and last sonata, which exists in two distinct versions, dispenses with moody reflections and instead busts out of the gate in an unbridled Allegro gallop in G major. Leaps and runs and arpeggios echo between keyboard and violin and then race together in whirring sixteenth-notes.
The start of the concluding sonata is the exception that proves the rule. Aside from the last sonata, each begins slowly, carefully, with senses sharpened, attuned to the subtlest gestures, the most careful shadings of sentiment.
Yes, Bach will serve up an abundance of virtuosity and witty counterpoint in the brisk fugal frolics that close each sonata: the careening rhythmic games and other concerto-like thrills of the last movement of the third sonata; the barely evaded chromatic collisions at the end of the fifth; the rollicking, rusticated gigue that finishes off the entire collection.
But it is the slow movements that delight and devastate, none more than that very first Adagio.