Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a series of six works for solo violin. Three are sonatas. “Sonata” is a technical term that in its largest sense simply means a piece of music meant to be played rather than sung. The other three solo-violin works are partitas, which means that they are made up of parts or movements, usually dance forms.
Bach’s second solo-violin partita’s final movement, a set of variations on a bass line called a Chaconne, is as long as the other four put together. Early on, Bach’s solo-violin Chaconne took on a life of its own, both for being played (at times) without the other four movements, and in various transcriptions and arrangements.
Arrangements or transcriptions exist for orchestra, piano, organ, guitar, cello, and saxophone quartet. Ferruccio Busoni‘s version really amounts to a major re-working of the piece in an overheated fin-de-siècle keyboard-virtuoso aesthetic. The good news is that the architectural structure of the solo-violin piece is substantial enough and resilient enough that the result is musically valid—at least for most of us.
Here’s high-energy Hélène Grimaud in an electrifying live version. To cite just one example, the arpeggio variation that starts at about 6:04 is a marvel of precision and clarity. Arkivmusic.com lists recordings by 36 pianists. So if Ms. Grimaud is a bit too out there for you, there are lots of choices. If I had to choose one and only one, it would be one of Shura Cherkassky’s: either the historical EMI one (circa 1956), or the autumnal Nimbus one (1987).
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