Johann Sebastian Bach began work on his six sonatas for violin and harpsichord (BWV 1014-19) while at the courts of Weimar and Köthen and returned to the compositions over several decades, revising and polishing until the years before his death. C.P.E. Bach would later pronounce the pieces “among the best works of my dear father.” Prefiguring the classic duo sonata, violin and keyboard meet on equal terms in this music, and both are challenged by Bach’s compositional demands. The group of sonatas was conceived as a set – six sonatas in six keys, three major and three minor. Bach’s first biographer Forkel wrote that the six sonatas “may be reckoned among Bach’s masterpieces in this genre. They are fugued throughout, and even contain characterful natural canons in dialogue between the two instruments. A master is required to play the violin part, for Bach knew the possibilities of that instrument and spared it as little as he did the harpsichord.”
Michelle Makarski is the violinist here. A player of exceptionally broad interests, committed to ‘classical’ repertoire from the pre-Baroque to New Music, but also experienced in jazz and improvisation, Makarski first came to ECM via Keith Jarrett. She appeared on his New Series album “Bridge of Light”, recorded in 1993. It featured Makarski as soloist on the “Elegy for Violin and String Orchestra” and as Jarrett’s duet partner on the “Sonata for Violin and Piano”. That recording led to other discs with Makarski at ECM ranging from a series of recital discs – beginning with the solo album “Caoine” – to experiments with Tomasz Stanko, John Surman and Dino Saluzzi on the prize-winning “From The Green Hill”, and playing alongside the Hilliard Ensemble in Stephen Hartke’s “Tituli”.
Through the years, Makarski and Jarrett have remained in contact. They first played the Bach sonatas together at Christmas 2008, and returning to the music became a theme of their weekend meetings over the next two years. “Every time she visited we played it again.” Jarrett tells Ethan Iverson in the September 2013 issue of Down Beat.
As Makarski has noted, the approach was the opposite of ‘casual’. “Think of it as the musical equivalent of a time-lapse exposure,” Makarski suggests, “with the camera focused on a process in Nature; planets moving, wrinkles appearing, trees leafing. You don't need to decide anything; you just watch. In our case, we just listened.”
One thinks here also of Jarrett’s early statement when recording Book 1 of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier: “This music does not need my assistance.” The intention, then as now: not to inflict interpretive ‘personality’ on the work. “It’s nutritious because it’s not me,“ Jarrett says. “I’m just throwing myself to the other guy, and asking him ‘Show me something I still don’t know about music’.”
The idea of documenting the music came late in the process: in November 2010 Makarski and Jarrett recorded the sonatas at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. “Even after deciding we’d like to record, the process didn’t much change,” Makarski notes. “What you have is a window on an organic long-term process of exploration and deep listening. It’s a kind of momentary document of a joyously renewed friendship – not a strategically planned project.“
This is Jarrett’s first ‘classical’ recording since his Mozart Piano Concertos discs of 1998, and only the second occasion on which he has recorded Bach on piano rather than harpsichord.
Keith Jarrett’s previous Bach recordings include “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” (Buch 1, 1987; Buch II, 1990), “Goldberg Variations” (1989), “3 Sonaten für Viola da Gamba und Cembalo” (1991, with Kim Kashkashian), and “The French Suites” (1991). Michelle Makarski’s New Series recordings include the recital discs “Caoine” (1995, with music of Bach, Biber, Hartke, Reger and Rochberg), “Elegio per un’ombra” (1999, with music of Tartini, Dallapiccola, Berio, Carter and Petrassi) and “To Be Sung On The Water” (2004, with music of Tartini and Crockett).