Bach: Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001
Bach: Partita No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1002
Bach: Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003
Bach: Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004
Bach: Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005
Bach: Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006
My sporadic weekends in Washington, DC are planned for various reasons, but regardless of what they are, I always try to sneak in at least one musical performance every time I make it down there because... why not? The trip this past weekend was chiefly motivated by a couple of museum exhibits that had to happen by then, even if the timing unfortunately made them coincide with the terrifying triple threat of Easter crowds, spring break crowds and cherry blossoms crowds. Even worse, neither the National Symphony Orchestra nor the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra would be there to make things better, but in the end I figured that the pleasures of plastic arts would keep me busy anyway.
Fate, however, was obviously looking out for me because after thoroughly enjoying the Crosscurrents exhibit at the American Art Museum and the Wonder exhibit at the Renwick Gallery, on Sunday afternoon I ended up at the National Gallery of Art, where I noticed a Bach concert that was about to start. The weather was gray and many businesses were closed, making our nation's capital a rather bleak place to be in, so I was only too happy to rush by countless visual masterpieces to go hear a handful of musical masterpieces in the lovely West Garden Court. That's where a large crowd of dedicated regulars and curious visitors was patiently waiting to bask in Bach's timeless Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin courtesy of internationally renowned Bach expert – and truly delightful hostess – Rachel Barton Pine.
Not only contending herself with being a certified violin virtuoso, Pine also proved to be a seemingly inexhaustible source of insights about the works on the program, keenly enlightening us before each of them. Some of those movements were actually somewhat familiar because they are occasionally played as encores by soloists wishing to bestow a little yet noteworthy treat upon their audience after their concerto is over. When done right – as they usually are – they never fail to satisfy even the pickiest music aficionados.
On Sunday afternoon, we had the privilege to hear all six sonatas and partitas in the plant-filled atrium that, while not acoustically ideal, created a welcoming performance space. And it was in this relaxed atmosphere that Pine played Bach at his most artless and compelling, knowing full well that letting the compositions organically speak for themselves would allow the inherent beauty of the music to shine all the more powerfully.
Her dazzling technique, which was subtly evident as she was effortlessly negotiating all sorts of daunting challenges, was only equaled by her energy and joyfulness. One could feel that her deep understanding of each piece freed her from any misgivings or apprehension at tackling them. She was playing them for the pure thrill of it while still making a well-taken point of sharing her journey into Bach-land with us.
After the short intermission, the Partita No. 2, or, as Pine herself put it, "the one with the Chaconne", finally came, and the most celebrated movement for solo violin ever eventually took off in all its inimitable life-affirming glory, and yet without any undue fuss whatsoever. One could in fact attest of the movement's enduring drawing power by the significant exodus that followed its completion. It was a shame because the other outstanding movement of the afternoon came not long afterward in the Sonata No. 3's Fugue, an endlessly complex and transcendentally beautiful little gem that is also a whole world in itself.
The concert finished on an upbeat note with the Partita No. 3, which winningly combines French elegance and German exactness in seven movements. By then Pine had been doing some talking and a lot of playing during the previous couple of hours, but she serenely kept on going strong and graceful, wrapping up this dynamite Bach marathon with the infectious light-heartedness of the Gigue. In a little less than three memorable hours, she and Bach had definitely turned this potentially gloomy Sunday afternoon into an infinitely brighter and better one.