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Bach Series

Rafael Font Baroque Violin

BACH Nº 5
Rafael Font performs the Grave & Fuga from JS Bach's Sonata No. 2 in A minor for solo violin, BWV 1003

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PROGRAM NOTES

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

SONATA NO. 2 IN A MINOR, BWV 1003
Grave & Fuga

Since the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, many musicologists have dedicated much of their own lives to the study of his life and music. One cornerstone of modern research is the first-ever biography of Bach’s life, written by Johann Nikolaus Forkel and first published in 1802. The direct correspondence between Forkel and two of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedeman, provides valuable insights that may otherwise have been lost.

Although renowned in his day as a keyboard virtuoso, JS Bach was brought up in the Stadtpfeifer tradition of practical multi-instrumentalists. Bach’s father, Johann Ambrosius, was a notable violinist and trumpeter, and much like a child of any other tradesman the young Johann Sebastian received direct instruction in violin playing. In fact, the Stainer violin listed among the instruments in Bach’s estate was perhaps an inheritance from Johann Ambrosius.

In one of his letters, Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote the following of his father’s violin playing to Forkel:

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In his youth and until the approach of old age he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord. He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments. This is evidenced by his solos for the violin and for the violoncello without [accompanying] bass. One of the greatest violinists once told me that he had seen nothing more perfect for learning to be a good violinist, and could suggest nothing better to anyone eager to learn, than the said violin solos without bass.
CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL

Within a single stave, JS Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin demand much of any performer; his masterful control of polyphony – the overlapping of two or more independent melodic lines – is applied here to the violin in the same way as in many of his works for solo keyboard. Perhaps this is why Bach’s collection, the only one he produced, remains an essential repertoire for solo violin to this day.

However, Bach’s approach to polyphonic writing for the violin was not novel in Germany. His output follows that of other seventeenth-century violinists and composers, many of whom are still considered to be pioneers for the instrument and essential learning. Among such predecessors are Thomas Baltzar, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, and the composers of the so-called Dresden school – Johann Jakob Walther and Johann Paul von Westhoff. It is on the shoulders of these giants that Bach is now considered to have brought this compositional technique to its zenith.

WHAT TO LISTEN FOR
In this performance for the Bach Series, Brandenburg Baroque violinist Rafael Font chose arguably one of the most challenging movements in all of JS Bach’s pieces for solo violin – the Grave & Fuga from Sonata No. 2 in A minor:

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The Grave from the Sonata No. 2 is the perfect example of Baroque architecture in music. Just like in a Baroque cathedral, there is a clear structure of columns (harmony in the form of chords), supporting an elaborate structure of arches full of ornamentation (melody). Bach was meticulous in the notation of his ornamented melody in keeping with the mathematical rules of notation. I chose to interpret it as an improvised decoration delicately woven on top of the structure, in keeping with the concept of Sprezzatura, or “effortless grace” that the pioneer of Baroque music Caccini introduced in 1600.

In the Fuga, I think of the main subject as depicting the struggle of human existence, represented musically by two steps forward (up), one step back (down). This is juxtaposed by the secondary subject of a lament, here a four-note descending chromatic line. The lament was a very popular rhetorical device, most famously used as a bassline by Purcell in Dido's lament from Dido & Aeneas, and in Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa.

The Fuga alternates between sections of the simple fugue in three parts using the main or the secondary subject, and contrasting episodes of fantasy that depart from these basic ideas and take us to different tonalities. As the piece progresses, the lament is eventually turned on its head, ascending rather than descending, giving a glimmer of hope. After a final flurry of virtuosity, the fugue ends on a final chord with a Picardy third – a surprise ending in A major, when death finally brings respite from the pains of earthly life.
RAFAEL FONT


Program Notes: Joanna Butler & Hugh Ronzani, 2020
Image Credit: Katelyn Jane-Dunn, 2020

 


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RAFAEL FONT

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His improvised embellishments were constantly surprising and towards the end his manner definitely created some audible chuckles from around the audience. A very fine fiddler indeed.
AUDIENCE MEMBER

Rafael Font started his violin studies at the age of five in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela.

After completing high school, Rafael moved to London to attend the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he obtained a Bachelor of Music on violin under the tutelage of Jacqueline Ross, while also taking Baroque violin lessons with Pavlo Beznosiuk.

During his time in Europe, Rafael worked with many leading British early music groups including the Academy of Ancient Music, La Nuova Musica, La Serenisima, Poeticall Musicke and Charivari Agreable. He was also a participant in the Ann and Peter Law Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Experience scheme. Rafael performed in many of the most important music venues of the UK including the Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Barbican Hall, York Cathedral and St George’s Bristol under the baton of artists such as Sir Colin Davis, Marin Alsop, William Christie and Richard Egarr.

Rafael pursued postgraduate studies in Baroque and Classical violin at the Royal Conservatoire of the Hague with teachers Kati Debretzeni and Walter Reiter, where his main topic of research was the writing of cadenzas in Mozart’s violin concertos. A highly versatile performer, Rafael has interests ranging from XVII Monteverdi to XIX Tchaikovsky in both violin and viola.

Since moving to Sydney, Rafael performs regularly with Australia’s leading early music ensembles including the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Pinchgut Opera, the Australian Haydn Ensemble and Salut! Baroque. Rafael is also a dedicated music teacher, regularly tutoring violin and viola and conducting ensembles across several schools in Sydney.

Rafael is a founding member of the Muffat Collective, one of the most exciting new early music small ensembles in Sydney. The Muffat Collective was formed by four friends who met while studying in the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague, bringing bravura and historical style to the trio sonata repertoire of the XVII and XVIII centuries.

View an interview with Rafael Font here

Biography: Rafael Font, 2020
Image Credit: Georges Antoni, 2019

BAROQUE VIOLIN

My violin, which I bought in 2013 when I started my Masters in Baroque violin in The Hague, was made in Bristol by the talented luthier Steffen Nowak. It is inspired by a 1666 instrument by Nicolo Amati, grandson of Andrea Amatiwhom many attribute the invention of the violin.

I chose this instrument because of its unique sound; its bright and velvety tone was very different to anything I had heard before. I have it set up with a Baroque “Stradivarius” pattern bridge and equal tension strings, meaning thicker lower strings than a modern violin, yet a thinner top string, thereby giving it a very different response. The lower register is punchy and articulate while the upper register is more versatile and has a bigger dynamic range, easily transitioning between delicate pianos and cutting fortes.

With a slightly longer fingerboard than was the norm for most of the Baroque, it allows me to play the highest notes required for some of the later Classical repertoire such as Beethoven quartets.

Instrument Notes: Rafael Font, 2020
Image Credit: Katelyn-Jane Dunn, 2020

FROM THE MANUSCRIPT

The excerpt above of the Grave from Sonata No. 2 in A minor comes from the 1720 autograph manuscript of JS Bach’s collection of Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. The manuscript is currently held in the Berlin State Library.

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH

Born 21 March 1685 in Eisenach
Died 28 July 1750 in Leipzig
Childhood (1685–1703)
Weimar, Arnstadt, and Mühlhausen (1703–1708)
Return to Weimar (1708–1717)
Köthen (1717–1723)
Leipzig (1723–1750)

Image Credit: Berlin State Library 

FROM OUR PRESENTING PARTNER APA GROUP

APA is proud to support the Brandenburg Bach Series. Arts and entertainment are important to Australia’s diverse culture and economy. During the COVID-19 pandemic these sectors and the artists, musicians, creatives and makers at its core, have been particularly hard hit. Innovation like this online series of recitals is evidence of their innovation and resilience. It will sustain and broaden audiences for this music long into the future.

Image Credit: Katelyn Jane-Dunn, 2020

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