I admit it. I am scared of J.S.Bach’s big G minor Sonata. And I’m not totally sure why.
I’ve performed it before, back in 2002, and it went fine. There’s no horrible backstory to make me dread it.
It’s beautiful. I like the themes, and the interplay between the oboe and the piano. Or, actually, between the two hands of the piano and the oboe. The three-line counterpoint is complex, and interesting. The second movement has a lovely melody that is almost romantic. The third is a fun fugal romp in cut time, followed by a terrific 12/16 section that can’t decide whether to lilt or gallop. It’s fun to play. So I don’t dislike the piece at all.
Endurance is a factor in this work – it does go and go and go, for 15 minutes, and Bach does not give me a lot of comfortable long rests in which to regain my composure, but I have played more grueling pieces- the second Schumann Romance, for example, and the Strauss Concerto, and I don’t fear those as much as I do this work.
The technique is tricky at times. Just a little un-oboistic in its intervals, and sometimes at its hardest when I am most oxygen-starved, which is just mean. But heavens, I’ve played many many pieces that were much harder. Even on this same program, there are licks in Pasculli and Tomasi that I am far more likely to miss than anything in the Bach. So that’s not it, either.
All of those elements factor into my fear, but I think my biggest problem with the piece is that I don’t understand it. That monumental first movement just keeps ticking along, for 7 minutes or more, and I struggle to grasp the big picture of the piece. All of the counterpoint is flawlessly written, well crafted, and intelligent, and certainly there are a few cadences I can grab onto. But I can’t seem to find a narrative arc to sell to the audience, or to myself. I hear the motives, but they seem to repeat at random intervals and I don’t have a sense of the movement as a whole. There’s sort of a high point, but then there’s sort of two or three of them, and there doesn’t seem to be any real reason that it should end where it does. We play and play, and then we stop.
I think it is this discomfort with the form of the piece that makes me fear it. I have listened to plenty of recordings, but none that make me lean in and groove along. Each player does a beautiful job of playing each individual measure, but the piece ultimately goes nowhere. And that is how I feel playing it too – unsatisfied. I am so narratively driven that I feel very uncomfortable just dinking along enjoying the ride. I think this piece may just be too cerebral for me.
So I have a whole set of recitals coming up, some of which are not even officially scheduled yet, and this Bach will not be on most of them. Besides my obvious concerns, I’m not sure it resonates with my theme as nicely as some other pieces might.
But I WILL perform it on my first program, at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on January 6. Because I refuse to live in fear.