By John von Rhein
Music of Johann Sebastian Bach has long held a central position in the respective repertoires of violinist Rachel Barton Pine and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour. But their recital Friday night at the Logan Center marked the first time these esteemed Chicago-native musicians had collaborated in music by Bach – or any composer’s music – at a major venue in their hometown.
Indeed, the concert, which concluded the season for the Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music Series of University of Chicago Presents, represented the UC debut of both artists.
Their program adhered to Bachian symmetry. Pine and Vinikour joined for two of the four works – Sonata in B minor (BWV 1014) and Sonata in E major (BWV 1016) for violin and keyboard – and each took the spotlight for solo Bach – the harpsichord Partita in D major (BWV 828) and the violin Partita in D minor (BWV 1004), with its monumental Chaconne.
Given the polished virtuosity and stylish grace that distinguish the violinist and harpsichordist’s recordings of this repertoire, the success they enjoyed on Friday could have been predicted. The acoustical and physical intimacy of the setting enhanced performances in which the whole surpassed the sum of its estimable parts.
Pine and Vinikour have been collaborating for two decades, delving deeper into the sonatas and partitas since 2015, when Vinikour moved back to Chicago after an extended period performing in Europe. Clearly they are compatible musical spirits, and their willingness to subsume their egos for the good of the whole went far towards enlivening pieces that can sometimes feel dry and mechanical in lesser hands.
The authentic feel of Friday’s performances owed partly to their chosen instruments. Pine swapped her regular Guarneri fiddle for a baroque violin, a lithe-toned 1770 Nicola Gagliano in its original, unaltered condition, played with a replica of an 18th century bow. Vinikour performed on a beautifully decorated copy of a 1769 two-manual Pascal Taskin harpsichord, custom-built for him in 2012. The latter instrument sounded as lovely as it looks: warm and fruity, worlds removed from the anemic tinkle of harpsichords heard during the infancy of the period-instrument revival.
The six sonatas for violin and harpsichord are not continuo sonatas, having fully written-out keyboard parts, which make them essentially trios. The duo’s communicative readings of the first and third of the set brought out the three voices with clarity, thanks to their close attention to precise intonation, crisp articulation and nuanced phrasing. At the same time, Pine and Vinikour refused to sacrifice spontaneity to historically informed “correctness.”
That said, the E major sonata, placed at the end of the program, came off with greater assurance than the B minor work that began the program. In fact the opening Adagio of BWV 1016 found violinist and harpsichordist breathing long phrases with a relaxed yet purposeful musical continuity. That sensation of jointly shared musical impulse carried over to the remaining three movements, culminating in the bravura tour de force that is the finale.
Interesting and splendidly crafted as are the duo sonatas, they have long taken a back seat to the musical genius Bach poured into his six solo violin Sonatas and Partitas, particularly the great Ciaconna that concludes the D-minor Partita.
This Chaconne is, of course, the supreme litmus test of every violinist’s mettle. Pine possesses not only the chops but also favors an honesty and directness of approach to Bach’s towering musical conception. In the liner notes to her recent Avie recording of “The Six,” she cites humility as a requisite for every fiddler who dares to climb this Everest of the solo repertoire; that quality, perhaps more than anything else, made her live account special.
She negotiated Bach’s intricate maze of 34 continuous variations with customary poise and insight, creating moments of exceptional beauty supported by a fine instrument outfitted with modern strings and played with a curved baroque bow. A few scattered “woofy” attacks were a small price to pay for playing as consistently alive to Bachian essentials as this. The remaining four movements came off with comparable flair, including the penultimate Giga, which danced with flying fingers and unerring strokes of Pine’s powerful bow.
Vinikour has written that the half-dozen masterpieces that form Bach’s set of keyboard Partitas represent “the apotheosis of [his] unique keyboard language and the expressive possibilities of the harpsichord, in the inherent range of colors and contrasts within the confines of a suite.”
The influence of the harpsichordist’s great teacher, Huguette Dreyfus (who died in 2016), at times could be discerned in his fluent, unmannered, rhythmically acute playing of the B-minor Partita on Friday, yet there were numerous touches uniquely his own – not least in the Echo finale with its delightful deployment, in rapid fire, of the harp stop. His embellishments and subtle adjustments of tempo and phrasing in the statelySarabanda also bespoke a deep stylistic understanding.
For their single encore, the instrumentalists offered the beautiful, even poetic Cantabile (BWV 1019a) Bach wrote for, but eventually removed from, his G-major Sonata, perhaps because its sheer length unbalanced the work. The eight-minute piece proved to be a welcome discovery, elegantly played.