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April 2016
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Rachel Barton Pine’s “Testament” Gets Back to Bach


Violinist Rachel Barton Pine

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine’s new recording of Bach’s complete Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas is titled Testament. It’s a word that has multiple meanings for Pine – from the importance of these celebrated works to how she defines her life’s purpose as a musician. I spoke with Pine about the album and her insights into the music.


LF: Knowing that Bach’s own faith was central to his work, you chose to record these works at a place with tremendous musical and personal significance – your church.

RBP: When I was a baby, my parents started attending St Paul’s United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park. One of the things that attracted them to the church, besides the social justice mission, was the music ministry. The organist would play Bach toccatas and fugues and the choir would do movements from the oratorios. And there’s a stained glass window of Bach in the sanctuary. It was at St Paul’s that I first encountered the violin when I was three years old. Now, when I play Bach in church, it reminds me that music is not just a pleasant diversion or another entertainment option, but it’s about being a conduit for something greater than yourself and sharing beautiful music with others to uplift their spirits.

LF: You’ve been playing these works for many years. What made you decide to record them now?

RBP: I felt like after all these years of studying and performing the music that it was time to lay it down for posterity and share it with the world. I simultaneously prepared an edition for Carl Fischer which has not only all my fingerings and bowings but a lot of my interpretative indications. Bach left many movements entirely devoid of any such indications, not meaning that they should be ‘blah’ of course, but that the performer should come up with their own ideas. I don’t expect anyone to copy me, nor would I want them to, but I feel that by sharing my ideas, maybe others can be inspired.

LF: For the album, you play on your primary concert instrument that you use when performing concertos, but with a Baroque bow. Why did you choose this combination?

RBP: I’ve made many Baroque recordings on a full-fledged Baroque violin, so people probably would have expected me to record Bach that way. But 95 percent of the time I’ve played these works has been on my ‘modernized’ – you don’t say ‘modern’ – 1742 Guarneri del Gesú. When I’m on the road, peppering Bach among all the other stuff I’m playing, I’m not bringing along two violins because that would be a nightmare. I do use the Baroque bow because you can easily put multiple bows in your case. I’ve never golfed in my life, but I imagine it’s like being out there on the golf course and selecting exactly the right iron for a particular shot. I take the right weapon from the sword rack!

LF: You’ve actually had a lot of experience with period instruments, embracing historically informed performance practice since early on in your career.

RBP: I was lucky to grow up here in Chicago because I became curious about historically informed interpretation way back when I was 14. There were wonderful period instrument specialists here in town that I could take some coaching from and start to learn how to use the Baroque bow. Unlike a lot of people who come to the Baroque bow when they’re already established professionals, I feel like it has been an organic part of who I am as a musician.

LF: The Bach Partitas in particular are suites of dance music. How do the specific dance styles influence your performance?

RBP: The relationship between dance forms and Bach is really interesting because a lot of his music was certainly not meant to be danced to. It was not utilitarian dance music like so much from the Baroque era. This was concert music – music for listening. And yet Bach is often very strict in terms of his use of form. For example, in many of the movements in the Partitas, he has moments at the ends of the first and second halves where the dancers should bow to each other. There are no dancers, so why do they need to bow? Bach was just kind of nodding to the tradition, which I think is really sweet in a way.

LF: What do you tell a young musician who may be intimidated by these great pieces, not only by the great technical challenges they pose but also by the deep reverence held for them?

RBP: The Sonatas and Partitas are held on a pedestal. There’s this feeling of ‘how dare I play Bach!’ But Bach would have wanted you to play his music, and it feels like you and Bach are in on this together. The music is personal. It almost becomes your close friend after a while. Everybody else plays these same pieces, but when I’m playing them, it’s just me and the music. It’s something very intimate, actually.

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