The Obbligato Sonatas | Bach Akademie Australia

Image courtesy of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Obbligato Sonatas are an exploration of the various styles of Baroque music and the emotional resonances of genres from joyful to melancholic. In this concert series, a trio of performers reawakened five of the six sonatas for an easy-listening afternoon.

Introducing each sonata, violinist Madeleine Easton quoted the narrative connotations of each key to demonstrate the great range of Bach’s compositions from the opening B minor signalling fate and opening oneself up to life’s possibilities to F minor for the fifth sonata and its associations with funerals and a longing for the grave. These compositional choices set up the scaffold for the sonatas as a sonic journey through life’s highs and lows. Additionally, Easton included the group’s own interpretations of each sonata including the second as akin to a sunrise or the fifth with a rhythm like the triumph of life after death. In these introductions, Easton illustrated her own personal enthusiasm for the sonatas as well as the multi-faceted quality of the compositions to generate different meanings and allusions between different players and listeners.

With Easton on violin, Neal Peres Da Costa on harpsichord and Anton Baba on viola da gamba rounded out the trio. The Obbligato Sonatas, in particular, are remarkable for the prominence of the harpsichord as an instrument typically relegated to a supporting position. Here, the three instruments were at extremes between the deep, smooth resonances of the viola da gamba and the tinny, bell-like harpsichord but the violin, borrowing qualities from each other instrument, completed the group for a harmonious, elegant sound.

The composition of the sonatas largely follows the sonata da chiesa model of four movements in a slow-fast-slow-fast pace order. As such, when performed together, the sonatas fall into a repetitive, predictable rhythm which is well-balanced and makes for easy listening. The second sonata stood out for a greater disparity in tone between the movements, possibly inspired by the connotations of A major as the key of love, a volatile state. But the final sonata with its slightly altered composition was the clear centre-piece of the concert. Opening with the “Allegro” like a jolly jig, the sonata’s third movement really shone as Da Costa’s harpsichord solo with a charming and upbeat rhythm. This last sonata’s key of G major has associations with the pastoral, a fitting image for the warm closing movement.

Across the concert, Easton’s energy was infectious as audience members bobbed their heads to skippy beats but the cool, collected demeanour of Da Costa and Baba’s playing was a grounding reminder of the lows that balance out life’s highs.

The Obbligato Sonatas was performed at Parish of the Holy Name Church on June 20th

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