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We Are Not Alone: Violinist and Venue Collaborate on Beautiful New Bach Recording

color photo of Rachel Barton Pine sitting down and playing her violin in the chancel area of St. Paul's UCC, Chicago
artist publicity video/YouTube
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Rachel Barton Pine records Bach's solo violin partitas and sonatas at St. Paul's United Church of Christ, Chicago

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine’s playing isn’t the only sound you hear on her new recording, Testament: Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Johann Sebastian Bach (Avie Records). The venue in which Pine made the recording had a voice from the beginning of the project, and shines forth as a brilliant collaborator on the new disc.

Above: Which Bach solo violin sonata or partita are you? Violinist Rachel Barton Pine talks Bach with Classical 101's Jennifer Hambrick. 

Place and Partner: 'What You Hear Is What You Get'

It was at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, that the four-year-old Pine performed her first work by J.S. Bach, “one of those little minuets children often play,” Pine said in a recent phone interview. “Kind of ‘my first Bach.’”

Pine grew up attending St. Paul’s with her family, surrounded by Bach’s organ and choral music and gazing into the church’s stained glass windows of Bach and personages from the Bible. The church became one of Pine’s favored performance venues. So when it came time for Pine to choose a venue in which to record Bach’s monumental partitas and sonatas for solo violin, St. Paul’s was an obvious choice.

“Playing there so often growing up, that sound is very much in my heart and in my ear,” Pine said. “But when it came time to record this album, I was suspicious of my opinion about my own church, because I thought it must be tainted by a healthy dose of sentimentality and polluted by familiarity.”

Pine and her recording engineer, Bill Maylone, did a sound check at the church and sent a recorded clip of Pine playing in the church to the recording producer, Steven Epstein, who gave the venue two thumbs-up.

“He said, ‘This is absolutely gorgeous. Why would you do it anywhere else?’ So that was really cool to discover that my parents had accidentally chosen a church for our family that happens to have a really great acoustic,” Pine said.

Maylone and Epstein discuss their recording process here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJD83Qk175I&feature=youtu.be

The church’s ideal resonance allowed for a relatively low-maintenace recording – a spartan microphone set-up and no post-production mixing.

“Once we started the session the producer said that the sound was so beautiful that he didn’t want to do anything post-production. So what we do on the album is a single pair of mics and that’s it. Two microphones, one pair, and no adjusting of the knobs. It’s just a live sounds, which is very, very unusual. What you hear is what you get.”

Baroque Flavor

What you get on Pine’s recording is a generous acoustic glow that polishes Pine’s sprightly playing with a veneer of golden warmth. And in Pine’s interpretations of Bach’s sonatas and partitas you also get the fruits of what she describes as new insights that preparing her edition of Bach's music for Carl Fischer Music gave her.

“It really became even more crystal clear for me that the three partitas are a progression, not just from four movements to five to six, but almost like past-present-future,” Pine said. “To our ears in the twenty-first century when we listen to them, they all sound like old baroque music. But to someone from Bach’s lifetime, the first partita would have clearly been a bit of a throwback to the seventeenth century. The second partita is in the sort of mainstream musical language of the day, the Italianate type of style. And the last one is in the new, modern, fashionable musical style of the French baroque. And so it’s this wonderful hybrid, and I really try to bring a lot of that flavor to my interpretation.” 

And like a skilled chef, the tools of Pine’s trade enable her to bring out those flavors, the special stylistic nuances of Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas. No stranger to historically informed performance practice, Pine used a baroque bow with her modernized violin in order to get just the right ring in the sound, just the right lightness, just the right feel for Bach’s music.

“(The baroque bow) allows you to play three- and four-note chords with sort of whooshing it across the string, not having to dig in or force it or play them very heavily. You can play them light, yet lively, they can be very round and yet full of vitality. And the modern bow simply can’t do that. You couldn’t possibly play Brahms with a baroque bow, but if you’re going to play Bach with a modern bow, you either end up playing it in a Brahmsian style because that’s what the bow wants to do, and if that’s what you want to do – fine, why not? But if you want to play in a baroque type of style, by lightening up to make it rounder, you also take away the energy, and so it just doesn’t work. It’s like you’re working twice as hard for half the effort, so why the heck wouldn’t you just pick up a baroque bow?”

A Monumentally Different Chaconne

Pine achieves masterful energy and fullness of sound at many instances on her new disc. In the opening Adagio of the Sonata No. 1 in g minor, BWV 1001, sustained notes beam through time and give this slow movement the feel of constant forward motion. The dotted rhythms of the Allemande of Partita No. 1 in G minor lilt amid effortless-sounding double stops. Throughout the Sonata No. 2 in A minor Pine gives beautiful shape and line to each distinct voice in Bach’s polyphonic melodies. From Bach’s pulsing, yearning dissonances in the Adagio of the Sonata No. 3 in C, she shapes a taught and twisting vine of sound. And in the Partita No. 3 in E, the Preludio and concluding Gigue veritably skip with joy.

Then there’s the Chaconne from Bach’s solo violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004. Arguably the acid test for any performance of Bach’s solo violin works, this chaconne – one of the titans in all of Western classical music – has received recorded interpretations that range from ponderous to brittle to distraught. But Pine’s lithe and emotionally unfettered interpretation gets to what she sees as a different truth about this monumental movement.

“People get very caught up in the fact that the chaconne is this grand, huge piece and it’s in a minor key. But what is the other violin work in D minor that we all know and love? Well, of course it’s the double violin concerto in D minor, and nobody says that that’s funereal or dark. I mean, that’s almost jovial, if you want to call it anything. Even though it’s a minor key, it’s pretty cheerful. And so I don’t think there’s anything overly dark about Bach’s D minor partita, including the chaconne. It definitely is very spirited, it’s very lively, and I don’t think it’s weighty and has the weight of the world on its shoulders the way that people want it to be. At least that’s my take on it.”

Tune in to Classical 101  ___________ to hear Rachel Barton Pine’s take on Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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