The Chaconne. The violinists Mount Olympus. To music what King Lear is to drama. The mystical Chaconne. What was it that prompted mighty Bach to compose such a massive edifice? At the end of a beautiful but otherwise entirely generic partita for solo violin in Dm, Bach places this huge Chaconne that is longer than the whole of the rest of the partita combined. When I first heard it all I knew of Bach was the Brandenburg concertos. I had listened to the preceding movements of the partita with growing interest and then, what was this? 14 minutes of continuous magnificence. Such deep, deep sadness and longing. So much pain and passion. Such wild beauty. Bach became my favourite composer then and for all time. Nobody else even comes close.
As I grew older with music, with Bach, I realised I was right. It IS the most beautiful music in the canon of Western Civilisation (“Western Civilisation? It’s a good idea.” – Ghandi) Beethoven has a good crack with the Opus 132 (String Quartet in Am) and, of course, everyone has their favourite bits of this, that and the other but no-one but Bach ever scaled the heights of the Chaconne. Hearing other musicians talk, I was gratified to find that this was not an uncommon view. I remember seeing a wonderful documentary on Itzhak Perlman, the Israeli-American virtuoso, possibly the greatest violinist alive and the bearer of the great tradition of Kreisler and Heifetz. He had not, at that time, recorded the unaccompanied Bach sonatas and partitas. When asked why, he smiled secretively and said “I’m not ready”. He elaborated a little but the impression was that these pieces were the ones – you had to get them right. A few years later he did record them. I remember the anticipation I felt waiting for the Chaconne. He breezed through the slight, jaunty Gigue that precedes it and launched into the Chaconne without a break. And he was ready. There are probably an infinite number of ways to approach it but Perlman took it on like a man fighting the greatest battle of his life. A hard-liner like Gidon Kremer would probably accuse him of too much drama but there are very few moments in life like laying down for posterity a version of the greatest music ever written for your instrument and hoping, knowing, it must last; that this must outlive you and define your reputation as an artist for all those that come after you. Maybe it is possible to guage a successful rendition by the final rallentando – possibly the most delicate moment of the whole piece. Too long, and you’ve given it up to pathos. Too short, and you’ve thrown it away. As I listened to Perlman I couldn’t believe how good it was. As he approached that final hurdle I held my breath. It was perfect. That final stark D that the piece ends with – no chord, just a D – was like the end of a speech by God, which in many ways, it is.