Day 26: Suite No. 5 in C minor, Allemande

Types of scordatura used in Heinrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas for violin. This puts Bach’s demands into perspective… Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

Today’s C minor Allemande recording featured one of the biggest tempo rethinks I’ve done in this project. I used to play it very, very slowly, lingering over every nuance and trying madly to bring out all the different voices using bow speed, dynamics, and so on. I was actually rather pleased with it the last time I played it several years ago.

Two things caused the rethink. The first was that I noticed (having somehow overlooked it before) the time signature.

I don’t claim to be a Bach expert, or a historically informed performance practice expert, or even a time signature expert, but a time signature of cut common a.k.a. 2/2 indicates to me that you want a feeling of a moderate two beats to the bar. The way I was playing the Allemande was so slow and so, well, self-indulgent that it didn’t even sound like a moderate four. It wasn’t even a slow four. It was more like a moderate eight. This had to be wrong: you wouldn’t want to conduct this in quavers/eighth notes, so why was I playing it this way?

I discovered this after doing my Take 1, which came out over nine minutes long. I listened to it and realized that the structure wasn’t really discernible, because it took so long to achieve harmonic change at this tempo that some of the more interesting things Bach does with the harmonies lost their effectiveness.

Which was really a pity, because I’d worked hard on my nuances.

Take 2 took a mere five minutes once I’d practised for half an hour and substantially worked up the tempo. The problem was that it sounded exceedingly dull, un-nuanced, and lacking in dynamic contrast.

Take 3 wasn’t much better, but I picked it over Take 2 because it didn’t have any M.S.M.s (Momentary Scordatura Malfunctions). Nuance and expression at the faster tempo are clearly things I’m going to have to do more work on.

Another point I noticed was a possible wrong note in the third bar of this line towards the end of the second half.

This is in scordatura, of course: in Normalstimmung it would look like this (my apologies for a couple of careless mistakes in the note values in my transcription, which I didn’t have time to correct):

Playing through this, the G-D-A flat chord in the third bar just sounded weird to me. In most editions the G is changed to a B flat, which gives you a nice tidy V7/I progression for the tonicization of E flat that occurs in that bar. G-D-A flat just sounds dissonant.

I turned to my recording collection for help, but Phoebe Carrai’s was the only one I listened to that went for the dissonant chord. She made it sound great because she’s a genius, but I wimped out and changed to a B flat. The spirit was willing, but the fingers were weak, or something.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C minor Allemande, Courante, Sarabande; D major Gavottes I & II.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s