Bach: Violin Concertos

Bach: Violin Concertos

J.S. Bach spent most of his life in the service of the Lutheran church, composing weekly, and at speed, vast amounts of organ music and cantatas. But between the years of 1717 and 1723, the German Baroque composer was employed at the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen. Freed from liturgical pressures, he conceived the majority of his greatest secular works, including the Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, music for solo violin and cello, a number of violin concertos, and a good deal more. Ostensibly, there are two concertos for solo violin and orchestra. One in A Minor, the other in E Minor. But there is little doubt, now, that Bach later rearranged the solo parts of a number of concertos for harpsichord (and changed the keys). Today, we can add two more violin concertos to the catalog: G Minor and D Minor. “I think that the D Minor is the one that was a revelation for me when I first listened to a recording as a student,” Leonidas Kavakos tells Apple Music Classical. “It was one of the most powerful musical experiences I’ve had. It’s like a grand concerto. He almost never wrote anything like it before or after.” Just a year or so after his album of Bach’s complete music for solo violin, the Greek violinist has recorded here the “complete set” of four solo violin concertos with a small, one-to-part handpicked group, The Apollon Ensemble. There’s a vibrancy to their recording, partly due to the size of the ensemble, but also thanks to the use of modern steel strings. Kavakos and Apollon hover between modernity and a period-instrument approach, crafting an intimate atmosphere where soloist and ensemble are at one. A blissful union of old and new. If those modern steel strings bring vibrancy, they also add richness. And the use of modern bows helps Kavakos and his ensemble reach greater levels of expression. “The quality of the sound of the modern bow does not compare,” he says. “Everybody speaks about articulation with a Baroque bow, but nobody speaks about, for instance, the really restricted dynamics. With a Baroque bow, you can only play so strongly. There is no way to play more than a certain amount of volume.” But this is no big-boned Bach. Kavakos’ approach to this music comes on the back of a realization in his youth that the German composer’s music had to be approached differently. “My generation emerged from an environment of huge personalities in the violin world,” says Kavakos. “And that dictated a way of playing Bach that was absolutely wrong for me. In the solo works, the way the polyphony was pronounced and served was wrong from a technical point of view, as well as the music’s expressivity.” It took him 10 years to find his own pathway. “I am much more at ease with this music because I now know there is a way to bring a modern and new approach to it,” he says. “I feel that the concertos have yet to be explored in a way that offers a different experience, not just acoustically, but also from a musical point of view,” Kavakos continues. “And that's why I created this ensemble. I thought, I want to have an ensemble that is not going to sound like an orchestra. I want something that’s going to be very personal, but also very present. And, because it’s just one person per voice, very flexible and independent.” In contrast to the vast spaces of Bach’s former places of work, such as the Divi Blasii church in Mühlhausen, the court at Cöthen offered smaller rooms and less reverberant acoustics. Bach’s music was therefore undoubtedly scored for smaller ensembles. “There are many times in the concertos when the orchestra repeats motifs that are in the solo part,” he explains. “If you look at the third movement of the Violin Concerto in G Minor, the soloist and the first violin part is like a double concerto. And so, while there is a personal solo voice, how can we depersonalize the other voices that are equally important?” A smaller ensemble allows the harpsichord to be heard much more clearly, too. Harpsichordist Iason Marmaras adds improvisatory elements that, Kavakos says, inspired the whole ensemble. “Iason does all kinds of things that bring to the music this unbelievable richness and this freedom,” says Kavakos. “It was almost as if I didn’t need the orchestra!” he adds, with a laugh. In the months leading up to this album, Kavakos has lived and breathed these concertos. At journey’s end, it’s the slow movements that, for him, rise far above. “If Bach only wrote these movements, they would be enough to define him as the greatest of all. Each and every one of these slow movements are just out of this world,” he says. “They're totally different, not only in key, of course, but also in character, in architecture, in concept, in everything. But each of them takes you somewhere. It's like you are in heaven, like you are somewhere outside this world.”

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