Celebrating Bach's Birthday: Rachel Barton Pine

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In celebration of Johann Sebastian Bach's 331st birthday on March 21, violinist Rachel Barton Pine released "Testament: Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Johann Sebastian Bach."

The album - her second on Avie Records - is available for sale on April 1.

Johann Sebastian Bach's contributions to classical music are universally acknowledged and celebrated as among the most significant and profound. His contrapuntal writing continues to set the standard by which any musical composition is judged. Among the greatest examples of his mastery of counterpoint, the Six Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin are a cornerstone of every violinist's study and repertoire. 

Pine is the only American gold medalist of the J.S. Bach International Violin Competition in Leipzig, Germany, an honor she won in 1992 at age 17. The quality of her scholarship and depth of her experience has continued to distinguish her interpretation of Bach's music.

Pine has made a lifelong study of Bach and his manuscript of the Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, examining the masterpieces themselves as well as the social, musical and historical context in which they were written. She has researched the composers Bach admired and given numerous historically-informed performances of17th and 18th Century music from Germany, France and Italy which served as a direct influence to his compositions.

This background in performing multiple styles adds nuanced layers to Pine's phrasing and ornaments; for example,the violinist highlights the French musical language Bach uses in his third partita by adding a typical petite reprise at the end of the Gavotte en Rondeau.

Her insights on Bach's Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violinare detailed in the  accompanying CD liner notes (link), as well as in the upcoming Carl Fischer publication J.S. Bach: Six Sonatas and Partitas. This new book, her seventh for Carl Fischer, presents Pine's dynamics, phrasing indications, bowings, and fingerings.  

To Pine, playing Bach is the perfect means to offer testament to her life's purpose: to uplift the spirits of others through music.  "My goal each day is to use my music to make a difference, to enrich lives.  Sharing music with people is not limited to the stage; deeply meaningful musical experiences can happen anywhere."

In addition to her official dates soloing with orchestras and playing in recital, Pine's 2016 season will include concerts for some of our nation's disenfranchised citizens.  For example, in D.C., she will perform two free Easter concerts: the complete Six Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. and for the homeless residents at the Community for Creative Non Violence.

Says Pine, "Bach created all of his compositions, whether explicitly sacred or not, in service to the Creator from whom his gift came. While he was writing with his specific God in mind, his music transcends religious labels. I believe that Bach's faith is inseparable from his music, whether sacred or secular. Each of his works is a celebration of the source of his musical voice."  

Knowing that Bach's sense of faith was deep and central to his being, the violinist chose to record the album in her church, St. Pauls United Church of Christ (UCC) in Chicago, a place with tremendous musical, personal and religious significance to Pine. It was at St. Pauls that Pine first encountered the violin and first played the works of Bach in worship at age four.

She calls St. Pauls her "emotional home" for Bach's music. St. Pauls UCC has been the spiritual home of many opera singers and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Its services always feature works of the great classical composers, and the music of Bach is celebrated above all others. There is even a stained glass window of the composer in the sanctuary.

Pine writes, "The St. Pauls sanctuary with its beautiful acoustics, reverberant yet clear, has continued to inform my interpretation of Bach's music... and no matter where I play Bach, the acoustical qualities of the sanctuary are always in my ear."

She recorded the album on her primary concert instrument that she uses when performing concertos with orchestras around the world: the 1742 "ex-Bazzini, ex-Soldat"Guarneri del Gesú, paired with a baroque bow. 

Explains Pine, "I began playing these works with a baroque bow at age 14, and since age 18, I have never played them with anything else. Because the vast majority of my performances of unaccompanied Bach have been on my primary concert violin in modern set-up, I chose to play my modernized 1742 Guarneri del Gesú for this album rather than an instrument in baroque set-up as for most of my recordings of baroque music. Therefore, you are hearing Bach's music the way I most often play it, with a modernized violin and a baroque bow."

A history of Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas - Writes Pine in her liner notes, "The Six Sonatas and Partitas are a culmination of an almost-century-old tradition of multiple-voice writing for unaccompanied violin in Germany.  Works by Thomas Baltzar (Preludes, Allemande, etc.), Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (Passacaglia), Johann Paul von Westhoff (Suites), and Georg Pisendel (Sonata) serve as significant examples of this improvisatory and compositional practice with which Bach was intimately familiar."

It was in the G Minor Fuga that Pine first heard beyond the violin in Bach's solo violin works: "To my ears, the organ with its variety of stops is often present, particularly in the pedal points of the coda."

The internal symmetry of the six violin works points to Bach's conception of them as a cycle, rather than merely a collection. The three Sonatas are in sonata da chiesa (church sonata) form: slow-fast-slow-fast.  Each Fuga is increasingly complex; in contrast, the third movements of the Sonatas become sparer, from three voices, to two, to primarily one.  

Meanwhile, the Partitas - suites of dance music in form that are not intended for dance in practice - follow a stylistically forward path, spanning the proto-17th Century of the B Minor to the High Baroque Italian of the D Minor and the then-modern French style of the E Major.

Pine's history with Bach - It was at St. Pauls that Pine first heard the violin when she was three years old.  According to her parents, the little girl immediately stood up in the pew, pointed at the older children performing and said, "I want to do that!" The church's sanctuary was where her relationship with Bach's music began and matured.  At age four, she first played a work of Bach during a worship service. By age five she had identified music as her life's calling, signing her kindergarten papers "Rachel, Violinist." 

Throughout the years, Pine regularly shared portions of the Six Sonatas and Partitas at St. Pauls for prelude or offertory, sat in an orchestra of professional musicians for full-scale Bach masses, and played obligato lines for Bach's vocal works. At age 11, she was honored to join fellow church members, Chicago Symphony principal oboist Ray Still and principal bassist Joe Guastafeste, for Bach's Oboe and Violin Concerto.

Bach was the soundtrack for the life lessons she learned as part of her greater community.  At St. Pauls, fellowship is not just an idea spoken from the pulpit, it is practiced through the mutual enjoyment of music. Being of service doesn't stop at the collection plate, it is expressed in the rehearsal room and while harmonizing together at the altar, as well as in numerous community service projects.

Pine credits her many early experiences playing music during worship for helping her hold to a higher purpose as she transitioned into being a professional musician.  Pine says, "Studying Bach and sharing his music with my congregation gave me a sense of what it really means to be a musician.One of the reasons that I have never suffered from stage fright is that I have always known that nervousness comes from a threat to the self.  By following Bach's example, when I play for others it is not about myself but about joining with the listeners to experience this amazing music with comes from something greater than ourselves."

It is in this spirit that the violinist decided to record the Six Sonatas and Partitas.  Says Pine, "The Sonatas and Partitas are among the greatest human acheivements and I have always viewed them with the deepest reverence.  However, remembering Bach's essential humility prevents these masterpieces from becoming overwhelming in their significance.  This recording is my testament to my lifelong relationship with one of the cornerstones of the violin repertoire, and it is a testament to all who have supported and inspired me."


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