Masterly playing of Bach’s first sonata and partita from Martin Riseley

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts
Martin Riseley (violin)

J S Bach: Solo Violin Sonata No 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
and Partita No 1 in B minor, BWV 1002

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 14 February, 12:15 pm

It takes other professional and voluntary organisations a long time to organise a few concerts drawing mainly on New Zealand musicians. But impresario extraordinaire Marjan van Waardenberg probably spends a good deal of the summer, putting together something approaching 50 concerts – one a week – at St Andrew’s; perhaps more than all the other chamber music organisers in Greater Wellington combined. They have become an important institution in Wellington’s musical life, providing a down-town venue for students at Victoria University’s school of music as well as a way for established musicians to remain in the public eye.

I gather she has concerts pretty well finalised for the whole year.

As well as offering surprisingly accomplished student performances, we also get to hear top-class professionals in music that is often overlooked by the mainstream promoters.

Bach’s six solo violin works are a case; we hear the cello suites from time to time, and certain of the keyboard suites and partitas but the violin sonatas and partitas, apart from familiar ones like the 3rd partita, seem neglected.

Martin Riseley is Associate Professor and head of strings in the university school of music; in addition he has recently reconnected with Christchurch where he began his tertiary violin studies in the 1980s, becoming Concert Master of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

Both the first and second violin sonatas and partitas are in minor keys which indeed seem to lend them a more solemn, less sunny aspect. But as with most music that has less immediate appeal, they all reveal their beauties and musical strengths, slowly, after a few hearings, and I guess my tally is far more than that.

The opening Adagio of the G minor sonata really set the tone of Riseley’s performance, not revealing much lyrical, legato character, but rather his care with detailed articulation that captured its intensely elegiac tone. Fugue is the title of the second movement; on the violin it is a counter-intuitive process, but his playing showed how clearly its fugal character can be heard as well as its strong rhythmic character. The third movement, Siciliana, is laid out to present marked contrasts between phrases on the G string and those on the high strings, which Riseley handled in an easy swaying rhythm. And he drove through the Presto finale, leaning on the first beat of the bar in clean, energetic playing.

Partita No 1, is fundamentally in four movements, but it becomes eight as each is followed by a ‘Double’, or a variation, though it’s sometimes hard to identify aspects of the basic theme since the Doubles dwell on the bass line of the movement itself. So this Partita is about twice the length of the Sonata. The first movement is an Allemanda (Bach uses French and Italian terms seemingly randomly) is marked by double dotted motifs, that explore the violin’s full range, and its complexity always strikes one as particularly profound; its ‘Double’ is brisker and more legato and flowing in style. The Corrente is faster, in triple time, and more sanguine than the first movement, but the real quick movement of the suite is its Double, that Riseley played brilliantly at almost twice the speed of the Corrente itself.

The slow movement is the grave, triple time Sarabanda with routine double stopping that sometimes seems de trop; the following Double is again quicker, more sanguine and flowing. Then comes the last movement, marked Tempo di bourée, a movement that is probably more familiar than most of the others. And its Double is in a flowing rhythm that doesn’t seek to startle, and Riseley handled its long-breathed lines unostentatiously, not attempting to mitigate the pervasive B minor tonality that has generally cast its sombre mood over the whole work.

Martin Riseley’s masterly playing has whetted our appetite to hear all six sonatas and partitas. I wondered to Marjan afterwards whether this was the first of three St Andrew’s recitals for Riseley to play all these great works; she thought not, for now, but agreed it should be done.

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