Early music expert Simon Standage discusses historically informed performance, interpretation and balancing violin and harpsichord in the first two movements of BWV1016
Bach wrote six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV1014–19, and I first played them such a long time ago that I honestly can’t remember when it was. I do know that I’ve been playing them since at least 1973, when I took up the Baroque violin (the date is written on my music!), both individually and as a set. Perhaps because Bach assembled the pieces himself, the six work well together as a concert programme. Many years ago I performed them in a museum in Oxford, with a harpsichord with a 16-foot stop! I’ve also played them with a pedal harpsichord, which made the E major Sonata’s left-hand octaves easier for the harpsichordist, and with an additional viola da gamba player. All combinations come with their own challenges of timbre and balance.
Playing with a harpsichordist
Balancing a harpsichord with a fiddle can require a stretch of the imagination. The harpsichord is an instrument incapable of sustained sound or vibrato, which makes it necessary for the violin to use an articulated style and plainer tone so that the two can engage in conversation on equal terms. Of course, keyboard instruments can vary tremendously in strength and character, so you may have to adjust differently on different occasions, particularly if you find yourself playing with a colossal thing with a 16-foot stop!
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