Bach partitas question

November 13, 2018, 2:31 PM · I've been obsessively listening to every recording of the first movement of the second partita, as I am now working on it. And interpretations vary drastically, more so than on other pieces I've compared. Hahn's is so slow it sounds like half the speed of Heifetz, which is so fast that I don't even think it sounds good (even though it's Heifetz). Perlman is in between. Hahn also builds in a lot of rubato and dynamic changes, and it's clear her bow is often barely gliding across the strings, whereas Perlman is very firm with the bow strokes and there is little rubato.

Is there just no generally accepted tempo or style? Obviously every player puts their stamp on a piece but in this case the differences seem so extreme that often two interpretations sound like entirely different pieces. The degree to which this is so surprised me.

I guess I need to choose a camp?

Replies (25)

November 13, 2018, 2:53 PM · Yes. Perlman's album is pretty much straight-ahead Galamian school. I had a teacher who would have loved me to do exactly that. (Come to think of it, if I could do exactly that, I could do lots of things I like even better.)
But these movements are impressions of dances whose specifics varied a lot by century and region. Which parts of which versions a player decides to emphasize can make a huge difference.

In general, keep a steady pulse (even if there is rubato somewhere baked in). Be aware of particular gestures that keep recurring. Like the dotted rhythm in the E major Loure, or the one, TWO, three, that a lot of the Sarabandes have. And get in touch with the harmonic flow, as that may influence your overall tempo.

November 13, 2018, 3:00 PM · I think yes that's right, no-one knows exactly how fast Bach wanted the Allemande to be, and the music itself can be interpreted at a huge range of tempi and styles. But then that's unaccompanied Bach for you (ok, possibly one of the more extreme examples!)

According to Wikipedia, a couple of German Baroque sources suggest you should go on the slow side, describing the Allemande as "serious, delighting in order and calm" or "grave and ceremonious". Though then Corelli went and composed them in any tempo from Largo to Presto, though he was an Italian and not a North German, so probably a less good source for Bach....

November 13, 2018, 3:13 PM · The two responses should be very helpful to you, The main thing to remember is that the metronome really was not invented until Beethoven's time. So, any metronomic indications of speed that you find in the sheet music are someone else's view of what works. You need to decide for yourself what tempo is appropriate for the music as it speaks to you. The bottom line is that no one knows how Bach envisioned the tempos other than in the most general sense.

I notice that you have not tried listening to any of the period performance folks such as Lucy van Dael (Naxos) or any of the more recent interpretations other than Hahn who has her own idiosyncratic interpretation of that movement (with which I disagree). Listen to Szeryng, who is a classic, or Kaler for other, very good non-period performance interpretations. Have fun!

November 13, 2018, 3:23 PM · I have Szeryng downloaded but haven't had a chance to listen yet. Also Milstein. Will look for van Dael! This is fun! :-)
November 13, 2018, 3:24 PM · You have a lot of freedom with these pieces, you can do what sounds right to you. I once did a set of dances from the Bach suites, transcribed for Viola. Knowing that dancers can be very fussy about tempos, I looked at u-tube clips of these court dances as done by supposedly informed, authentic dancers. It was not helpful. The tempos and choreography varied widely. The choreography and tempos also varied between countries and time periods.
November 13, 2018, 3:43 PM · Hi Elizabeth,

Highly recommend you read what 17th and 18th c. theorists wrote about the allemande and allemandas. The choreographies have great variety but there's some very general trait about the allemande, like it's never a terribly quick sort of dance and has some sort of gravitas, not that it is slow either. Have fun :)

November 13, 2018, 4:09 PM · Maybe the question isn't so much tempo, but meter.

For example, many people make the Allemande sound like it's in 8, which kind of drags it down. Try emphasizing only 2 big beats per bar. It helps move the phrase along, even if the tempo isn't much faster.

November 13, 2018, 4:14 PM · I have found listening to recordings by non-violinists to be the most helpful with the S&Ps. My favorite such recording is Hopkinson Smith's. That might help you on your search for the ideal-for-you tempo/meter.
Edited: November 13, 2018, 10:15 PM · I'd like to recommend Miriam Fried:

It is an on-line subscription for about $20, and I recommend starting at the end with "the Partitas" just to get a quick taste for what you missed getting to that.

Personally I think of Bach's 6 Sonatas & Partitas for solo violin and his 6 Suites for Solo Cello like one of those "coloring books for adults that" contain line drawings of great paintings. If you use them you are free to color them the way you want. It seems fairly obvious to me from the 15 recordings I have in my iTunes of Bach's S & P (and similar number of the cello Suites) that I am not alone in that - but those who have recorded do what they want, while I am limited to doing what I can!

It was an exciting day, over 22 years ago when violinist Lara St. John visited our local Borders bookstore "selling" her new CD of Bach's S & P. I took my 6+ year old granddaughter who I had started teaching violin about 6 months earlier. It was very thrilling for both of us when Lara played the Chaconne, I especially liked the freedom with which she rolled the chords. I bought my granddaughter a copy of the S&P CD, which Lara signed -- and my granddaughter continued to take lessons from my through her sophomore high school year, nearly 10 years later.(Everything about Lara, who was a tall and beautiful young lady in her early 20s, impressed my granddaughter and helped continue her motivation to hone her skills in all things.)

November 13, 2018, 4:59 PM · I would recommend two things. In addition to the recordings you are listening to, search out some from Baroque performance practice specialists. Not that these are necessarily "right" either, but it gives you a different sort of idea in many of these pieces. For example, the Loure in Partita 3 makes absolutely zero rhythmic sense to me in a number of recordings by very well respected violinists. But it makes complete sense in some of the Baroque practice recordings.

I would suggest Stanley Ritchie or Rachel Podger. Ritchie's recordings are on YouTube but a bit hard to is the Allemande: And here is Rachel Podger: For a kind of between voice mixing old and new I like Rachel Barton Pine's recordings.

Next, try out the Baroque technique yourself. Get yourself a cheap Baroque bow off Amazon (<$100) and play. It's hard to explain what a difference this makes, but it will completely change how you play Bach, no matter what bow you end up using. It just makes you understand how to do it.

November 13, 2018, 5:25 PM · Susan's point about the bow is a good one. You can approximate the effect of a baroque bow by holding your regular bow above the frog some. However, getting a baroque bow will give you a better idea of the feel of Bach as he would have played it.

One thing the teacher with whom I first did Partita #2 said which I have always retained is "remember that these are dance movements, and they should be played with that in mind."

Edited: November 13, 2018, 6:13 PM · This is one of the least technically demanding movements of the S&P, but I find it a relatively difficult movement to interpret. It can be a challenge to decide which notes to emphasize and where each phrase begins and ends. Listening to a variety of recordings is a good idea. I would second the vote for Rachel Podger. Others on my "Solo Bach Reference" playlist are Rachel Barton Pine, Isabelle Faust, Christian Tetzlaff, and Viktoria Mullova.

I also found it helpful to listen to Winsome Evans' excellent harpsicord transcriptions of the S&Ps, which can help you hear the contrapunctal nature of these pieces clearly.

November 13, 2018, 6:16 PM · I second the suggestions of Milstein and Tetzlaff. The most important thing is to explore the difference between copying and making it your own - that's where the fun lies.
November 13, 2018, 9:42 PM · The partita manuscripts in Bach's own hand do not typically contain information on dynamics and tempo. You will see notation for slurs, trills and some bow techniques like staccato. Little more than bare notes on the staves.

My understanding of the performance at that time was to leave a lot of the interpretation up to the musician.

Edited: November 14, 2018, 8:53 AM · I'm no baroque purist, but baroque-informed approaches on more recent recordings are so much more subtle and beautiful than the recordings of a generation ago.

I used to love the Perlman and Milstein recordings but really they belong to an earlier time -- like Heifetz, it's basically Bach played in a Russian romantic style.

Forty or fifty years ago it was the only way people knew Bach, probably because Heifetz and Milstein and Galamian were so influential.

But now we know better, and performers are free to play these in a wide variety of styles.

Today I'd especially recommend Isabelle Faust -- who plays with modern violin and bow but has a wonderful light touch with brisk tempos and minimal vibrato.

Podger of course has shown a lot of people how to play Bach -- she plays with a baroque outward-camber bow, playing a lot off the string, and it really highlights the dances that are at the heart of the S&P.

Viktoria Mullova's recording (again, I think it's a modern instrument with a baroque bow) is darker, completely different and gorgeous in its own way.

Amandine Beyer is a baroque specialist and her recording is lovely and thoughtful.

And Tetzlaff's most recent recording is baroque informed and more nuanced than his first recording. Oh to have the luxury of being able to record them multiple times....

November 14, 2018, 9:27 AM · I have the Faust one and listened to it this AM. I really love that one. I liked James Ehnes as well. I will look for the others! :-)
November 14, 2018, 10:02 AM · And for an unashamedly older style, Oscar Shumsky did some of the best Bach playing you'll find anywhere. His b-minor Partita blew me away the first time I heard it.

Or-- if Auer students are too modern for you-- Joseph Joachim recorded the g-minor Adagio and the b-minor Bouree. The man who got help from Mendelssohn!

November 14, 2018, 5:42 PM · Carmen's point about the ms. is an important one. There is little other than the notes, although to some extent, simply from the way the notes sit on the page, you can get some sense of the phrasing. An additional problem is interpreting the slurs. In many cases, it is difficult to tell exactly which notes sit within one slur, and Bach does not appear to have been consistent in his use of slurs. Anyhow, the ms., in addition to leaving a great deal of room for interpretation, does have its own interpretive problems with regard to the information it contains. With respect to dynamic markings, to the extent you have a phrase that is repeated twice, in baroque practice, the first time, it is played forte or or at least relatively loudly, and the second time, it is played piano, or at least softer. In any event, play the piece in a way which seems meaningful to you, and do not worry that much about orthodoxy.
November 14, 2018, 6:11 PM · Thomas--I listened to the Tetzlaff and didn't like it at all. Interpretation is all well and good, but his deviated so radically from anything resembling a tempo that I couldn't listen to it. And no one could dance to it--that's for sure! It's fascinating how much these all differ and how differently people feel about them!
November 14, 2018, 6:11 PM · So far, Faust is my favorite, I think.
November 14, 2018, 6:25 PM · Elizabeth, I agree, Faust is my favorite too. Her bow technique (and I think she plays with a modern bow) is just astonishing. I don't love the Tetzlaff but it is super interesting -- he is definitely taking risks and trying some things that no one else tries.
Edited: November 15, 2018, 8:42 PM · I have another favorite--Ilya Kaler. Someone mentioned him above as a non-period interpretation, but I actually find his closest to Faust's, who I gather isn't completely period but is more on that end of things? And I like some things about it better than Faust's. It's not all aggressive and testosterone-pumped like Perlman's or Milstein's, but it's got a little more clear tempo than Faust's. Somewhere between Kaler and Faust is where I fall, I think.

At first I was afraid that I was shooting myself in the foot by listening to all these, because when I practiced, I couldn't help but feel how much I sucked in comparison. But tonight I started to really work on the phrasing, and it's coming together! I feel OK about it. :-)

November 16, 2018, 7:00 AM · I mentioned Kaler. He is very good. In the past two weeks, I have seen both Hahn and Shaham do live performances of one or more of the S&Ps. What a treat!
November 16, 2018, 8:36 AM · I second Thomas B's recommendations. It's a little odd when you say you've "obsessively" listened to all S&P recordings and then mention Perlman, Heifetz and Hahn who are all very old-fashioned Russian-American style ways of playing Bach, which doesn't have a whole lot to do with Bach.

One thing is try to keep in mind that these are pieces based on dance rhythms; the other thing is to keep your bow short.

November 16, 2018, 9:15 AM · I obsessively listened to the ones I found immediately. Like over and over and over again LOL. I've appreciated the others that were suggested to me here. Amazon music can be daunting when you are looking for something. EVERYTHING is there.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Violin Finder
Yamaha Violin Finder

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins


Warchal Strings
Warchal Strings

Metzler Violin Shop
Metzler Violin Shop

Dimitri Musafia
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Meadowmount School of Music

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases


Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Pluhar Violins

Potter Violins

Pro-Am Strings Ltd

Violin Lab

Violin Pros

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop