Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Martin Riseley in the second splendid recital of Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas, benefit for St Andrew’s organ restoration

By , 07/06/2019

Martin Riseley (violin)
Bach solo violin partitas and sonatas plus New Zealand composers

Bach: Partita No 3 in E major; Sonata No 3 in C major; Partita No. 2 in D minor
Gareth Farr: Wakatipu
Psathas: Gyftiko

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 7 June, 6:30 pm

At one of last year’s lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s Martin Riseley played one each of Bach’s solo partitas and sonatas, and it led to the suggestion that he might play all six of them. And so he did: he played the first three last month and here were the last three.

This second recital was a generous benefit concert to assist with the restoration of the pipe organ; and Susan Jones spoke about its necessity while organist Peter Franklin gave pithy demonstrations of the character of the organ and examples of its deficiencies.

I should also remark at my surprise that this splendid recital didn’t attract a full house, as I think there are no greater works in the violin repertoire, and Riseley is among the finest violinists in the country.

Though Martin’s notes printed in the programme leaflet are admirable and revelatory (and worth asking St Andrew’s whether they can be emailed), I cannot resist the temptation to share some other particularly illuminating remarks. Here’s what Hilary Hahn wrote to accompany her performances recorded on YouTube: Alongside Paganini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin and Bach’s six cello suites, his Partitas and Sonatas (three apiece) for solo violin stand out among their comparatively few siblings as magnificent music written for an unaccompanied stringed instrument. And while they also represent the zenith of polyphonic writing for a non-keyboard instrument, Bach’s sonatas and partitas were also crucially important in the development of violin technique. With their colossal scope, huge technical demands, and musical complexity, and notwithstanding their awesome intellectual intensity, these creations greatly transcended anything that had preceded them…’

Riseley began with the third partita and worked in the reverse of the order in which they appear in the Bach catalogue; so that he could end with the second Partita and its great Chaconne. 

The Preludio of the E major Partita is a cheerful, energetic movement to which Riseley contributed the warmth of his fine violin and his own expansive and generous playing. But it’s the Loure that strikes one as contributing something rather special. Forgive me for commenting on this unusual musical dances: best described, from an Internet site: ‘A slow, dignified, French dance of the 17th and 18th centuries usually in 3/4 or 6/4 time. The name derived from a bagpipe used in Normandy; the dance is usually in 6/4 time and has been described as a slow gigue. Examples are found in Bach’s E major partita and in the fifth of his French suites’ (musicterms.artopium.com).  It’s a reticent, meditative piece whose spirit seems to remain throughout the whole partita.

The Gavotte is one of the more familiar pieces, fresh and spontaneous, while the obligatory menuets are more subdued, the second one takes a more subdued character, almost sounding as if it’s moved to the minor key, though it hasn’t.

Then came the first of the New Zealand interludes: Psathas’s Gyftiko (or γυφτικο; though not in my Greek dictionary, ‘daddy’ according to ‘Google translate’). Though a test-piece for the Michael Hill Violin Competition, it’s quite an elaborate and substantial piece: melodic, frenzied, unpredictable, and Riseley would presumably have impressed the judges if he had been a competitor.

The third sonata is an imposing piece too: sombre, polyphonic in its Adagio, but its extended Fuga is its core and Riseley allowed its rather near spiritual affinity with the Chaconne of the last partita into view; its imposing fugal structure was its most impressive feature, often sounding as if two or more instruments were involved. Its tone was often so mellow and rich that I looked for a mute on the bridge, but it wasn’t there. The subdued Largo offered no foretaste of the splendid, well-known finale – an Allegro assai with which Riseley brought the first half to a joyous and brilliant conclusion.

Gareth Farr’s piece for the Michael Hill competition, Wakatipu, provided the filling before the second partita, and its Chaconne. Competition pieces have historically been little more than hair-raising technical exploits, but both Psathas and Farr offered much more significant and interesting works and I enjoyed the chance to hear both, so seriously and brilliantly played.

The second Partita is about half an hour in length. Its movements were omitted from the programme: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, Chaconne. Riseley noted that it should really be heard in the order that Bach prescribed – after the A minor Sonata (unlike other sets of pieces, the first four sonatas and partitas are in minor keys; only the third of each is in the major). Its D minor key takes charge of its spirit: sombre and serious and profound. The Allemande opened with a sense of wonder, with long, even passages that anchored it through its long piano episodes. The Courante can hardly be called jocular; neither is it spectacular technically, simply preparing us for the first of the two slow, triple-time movements: the Sarabande, which in turn offers in mood, a hint of the spirit and complexity of the Chaconne, though we pass through the humane, cheerful Gigue that’s not really a great technical feat, unlike the great Chaconne to come.

To be present for this performance was a wonderful experience: no hearing from even the greatest violinist on air or an excellent recording can match the live experience; certainly not one as excellent and as satisfying as we heard from Martin Riseley. All the complex emotional, technical and interpretative demands that Bach presents were so beautifully executed and revealed. Here was a performance that made me quite forget Busoni (whose famous piano version I do love), as I became enchanted and overcome by the music’s endless invention and the dynamic and rhythmic variety that the player must deal with. As a long-time lover of the cello suites, this made me realise that none of them contains a movement that approaches this Chaconne.

The audience response at the end was immediate, noisy, even rapturous, and they all knew they has made an infinitely better choice for a Friday evening than the unfortunates who weren’t at this unique recital.

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