The G major Partita is the most transparent of the set, textural clarity being the characteristic that defines the entire piece, overshadowing and perhaps concealing its technical mastery, while seducing the listener into underestimating its substantial size. It appears to have been newly conceived for its 1730 publication, and seems related to Partita 4 through several aspects of its passage-work, not to mention the dual-theme concept behind its final gigue, where a new subject is introduced in the second half, later combined in double counterpoint with the opening tune. The introductory movement is designated as a Preambulum, also the term Bach initially used for the fifteen two-part Inventions. It inhabits a particularly sunny world, as do many ofBach’s compositions in G major: the organ Prelude, BWV 541 as well as both preludes in that key from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2. This piece contains little counterpoint and features the most up-to-date keyboard techniques, including the crossing of one hand over the other, as in the giga of Partita 1. Like the Courante ofPartita 4, the Preambulum is written with continuous note-tails that unite the sixteenth-note and accompanying eighth-note figurations into a continuous, single rhythmic sweep.

The allemande is consciously related to the corresponding dance in the fourthEnglish Suite, with its flow of triplets against a common time pulse, and two-part imitative counterpoint. The corrente begins with a three-note upbeat and resembles a sonata movement more than a conventional dance. The sarabande, again far removed in spirit from the classic model, is composed in three-voice texture, akin to the E-flat major Sinfonia, or the Loure from the fifth French Suite. It achieves much of its effect through the use of thirds and sixths, and the interplay of both long and short suspensions (both long appoggiature and those short grace notes called Accentus in German treatises, or acciaccature by later Italian theorists).

The following movement is a mystery: described by Bach only as “at the tempo of a minuet”, yet having little in common in rhythm or general character with the typical dance of that name. The unusual notation, with combined upper and lower note-stems on the first and third eighth-note in most bars, implies across-rhythm and divides the three quarter-note beats of the time signature into a more ambiguous pattern of six eighth-notes, with accents placed on the first and third of them. This creates a puzzle that defines the entire character of this movement and provides a challenge to the performer. On a two-manual harpsichord these distinctly-notated separate parts that actually share the same pitches can be delineated by the use of two manuals with contrasting colors, reminding us again of how idiomatically Bach created these works for performance on a two-manual harpsichord.

In the same way that the mood of the scherzo of Partita 3 emerges from the burlesca movement that precedes it, the Passepied in Partita 5 more energetically continues the spirit of the preceding minuet, almost as a variation on the same theme. The final gigue, with its economical subject and transparent texture is one of Bach’s great fugal movements, demonstrating his mastery of double counterpoint as the separate subjects that announce each half (continuing the idea presented in each half of the gigue toPartita 4) are later combined. This, along with unusual use of notation, is another common thread that links the D major and G major Partitas, likely indicating that they stem from the same period. The transparency of the texture allows this gigue to wear its contrapuntal mastery lightly, while this remarkable concealment of profound art within a seemingly light-hearted framework indicates Bach’s unprecedented skill and control over his material.

©Peter Watchorn

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