Johann Sebastian Bach completed his Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato (Six Solos for Violin Without Bass Accompaniment) when he was kapellmeister in Köthen in 1720. The title Sonatas and Partitas (Partias) refers to the titles of the six individual pieces that make up this set.
The concept of writing polyphonic — many voiced — music for a solo instrument wasn’t new and, in fact, was very popular in Germany. Johann Paul von Westhoff, a court musician and composer in Dresden and Weimar — where Bach would’ve certainly known him for the last two years of Westhoff’s life — wrote a fantastic set of six Partitas/Suites for Solo Violin in 1696.
One of the greatest examples of polyphonic music written for the solo violin was the composer, Heinrich Ignaz Biber’s, Passacaglia in G minor, here virtuosically performed by the Gabrielle Wunsch.
Another auqaintance of Bach, the great violin virtuoso and composer, Johann Georg Pisendel wrote his Sonata in A minor in 1717, just three years before Bach’s solo pieces were written. Rachel Barton Pine gives a lovely introduction and excellent performance of this work.
Georg Philipp Telemann, a close friend of Bach and also a prolific composer, would write his 12 Fantasias for Solo Violin in 1735.
Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas weren’t published until 1802 and it wasn’t until much later in the 19th century, when the German violinist, Joseph Joachim, started performing them in concert that they began to catch on. By the twentieth they were considered standard repertoire.
There are many fine recordings that have been made over the years and in picking just a few that are available to listen to on YouTube, I’m sure I’ll be leaving out someone’s favorite recordings. But, more importantly, the exploration some violinists have taken with the techniques required to play a baroque bow, which differ quite a bit from the modern bow, have made for very exciting differences in approach to these works. Here is the violinist Rachel Barton Fine describing and showing the differences of a baroque and modern bow as it pertains to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas.
With that in mind, I’m going to separate my favorite performances of sonatas and partitas by violinists on modern bows and baroque bows.