The second Partita appeared in print within a year of the first (by September, 1727) and, from the outset presents as a more substantial, serious and momentous work than its earlier companion. The opening Sinfonia begins with a dotted introduction, almost like the beginning of a French Ouverture. This grand opening gesture quickly transforms itself into a melodious, expressive and highly ornamented aria,akin to the slow movement of the Italian Concerto (and, like the middle movement of BWV 971 also marked Andante, indicating a not-too-slow tempo). Anenergetic, genuine two-voice fugue follows with an ascending-scale subject that encompasses the interval of a minor 9th, creating a mood of special intensity. The following allemande evokes the contrapuntal seriousness found within the English Suites. It maintains a light, two-voice texture throughout and uses several of the lowest notes found on Bach’s keyboard: AA and BB flat.The courante, genuinely French in style with its slow, 3/2 pulse, lively figuration that makes the tempo seem quicker than it is, and traditional cadential hemiolas that conclude each half reinforces the rather conservative and serious nature of the work.

The sarabande is in reality a “Sarabande Double”: a more transparent, ornamented version of the familiar, straightforward dance of the same name (Bach actually uses the term Sarabande Simple in one of his earlier suites, to distinguish the original from this kind of movement, when both are present within the same work). This kind of paraphrase of a more traditional dance movement occurs frequently throughout the Partitas, illustrating the idea of “variation” upon a basic idea or theme, and underscoring the meaning of the collection’s title. InEnglish Suites 2 & 3, following the sarabandes proper, Bach provided extra written-out versions, each with French agrèments, or ornaments; in the case of no. 2, just the treble line. The player was clearly expected to adapt the bass accordingly (and perhaps play the ornamented versions as the repeats to the main sarabande). Here, and elsewhere among the Partitas, Bach assumes that the player already knows the basic format and character of the dance by omitting it entirely and supplying a varied substitute in its place, either more or, perhaps, less elaborate than the absent original.

The final two movements of the C minor Partita are, respectively French (a rondeau, designated, perhaps incorrectly in the original print in the plural Rondeaux), and Italian: the finale is a concerto movement called Capriccio; a designation that appears to have little to do with the work’s actual character, which is at once concerto-like, virtuosic and yet strictly contrapuntal. Bach tests the player’s technical dexterity with ascending leaps of a tenth in the left hand; his idea (as well as the thematic material) being inverted in the second half, the only characteristic that this movement shares with a more typical gigue finale. The closing movement of this Partita requires a high standard of executive skill from the performer: as with the remaining works in the set, its demands, both technical and musical, range far beyond anything else in the contemporary repertoire.

©Peter Watchorn

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