Arts quarantine theater

Bach with the BSO

The Boston Symphony Orchestra goes virtual

BSO at Home, the Bach Project Finale: Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major
Boston Symphony Orchestra violinists Wendy Putnam, Victor Romanul, Lucia Lin, and Catherine French
June 2, 2020

When the pandemic first swept into our lives, every mode of live entertainment became uncertain. How could we go to the movie theater, see our favorite artist on tour, or even enjoy a walk through a museum when each person we met there would be a danger to our health, and our presence there would be a risk to our communities? While other media tried to avoid closing their doors and dragged their feet in the face of mandates, orchestras knew they had to close. Their average patron is much older than that of a theater or a pop concert, and the instruments could not withstand the elements if performances were moved outside.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, like many around the country, innovated their way around this closure. They released old recordings of concerts and made behind-the-scenes and solo videos of many of their musicians.

The majority of these videos belong to the Bach project. Here, various violinists have recorded movements from Bach’s sonatas and partitas. The finale, and the topic of this article, is a series of recordings by Wendy Putnam, Victor Romanul, Lucia Lin, and Catherine French of Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major on the violin.

Preludio, Wendy Putnam

This movement is dynamic and winding, and Putnam’s recording doesn’t miss a beat. Although she stands with an unsettling stillness, listening to her perfectly clear bariolage, cascading string crossings, lets the world fade away, making way for the grand midst of the movement.

Loure, Victor Romanul

Perhaps the most intimate, beautiful moments in this recording come from Victor Romanul in the Loure. This movement is slow yet complex, quiet yet dramatic in design. Each note feels innovative and improvised, as if it is being carved out of the violin itself.

At times, Romanul’s speed changes feel unpredictable and forced, but this variation’s fresh feeling is always preserved.

Gavotte and Rondo, Lucia Lin

Lin’s performance of the Gavotte and Rondo brings the piece alive. Her decisive, flicking movements weave through the piece with joyful clarity. This is how Bach should sound, and there’s not much more to say.

Menuetto I. and Menuetto II., Victor Romanul

Harkening back to the beauty of the Loure, Romanul’s clean double stops beautifully weave together all of the complex melodies written in these short movements. Even when Romanul misses a necessary string or grazes over an unused one, every sound he produces seems to fill into the grandeur of the music.

Bourée, Catherine French

Although it’s hard to tell how much of the poor tone is due to the audio recording (each of these clips are filmed in the musicians’ homes), this movement felt dull and forced in its initial moments. By the second refrain, French’s tone has improved, but the heavy sound never resolves into the lively sound of French’s peers.

Gigue, Wendy Putnam

This movement echoes back to the speed of the first, also performed by Putnam, although it contains none of the winding bariolage, instead opting for clean, repeating arpeggios. Her tone is beautifully clear and her emphasis on the few eighth notes in the piece sounds comforting. This is a beautiful end to the piece, but truly no movement can beat the first in terms of technical strain or complexity. 

This piece is among the greats of solo violin music. It is moving by design and brought alive by individuality. In the midst of a universal crisis, the combination of such a familiar song with the intimacy of each individual recording from their homes is the comfort that we all need.