New Classical Tracks: Getting into a Bach Groove

October 23, 2013

Listen New Classical Tracks: Getting into a Bach Groove
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Johann Sebastian Bach: Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano (Courtesy of ECM)

Violinist Michelle Makarski was born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and grew up in Detroit. That's where she studied with Mischa Mischakoff, concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who also held the same position with Toscanini. "He was absolutely ruthless about intonation and absolutely ruthless about training structure in the left hand — the fingering hand for the violinist," she recalls.

Makarski also took several master classes with another violin legend, Nathan Milstein. "He loved my Bach and I didn't like it. So that was something that stuck with me then."

Now Michelle Makarski does love her Bach, especially her new collection of Bach sonatas with jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. "Keith and I are good partners for a number of reasons, I'd say. First of all, we both know how to get into a groove. So we have a very good rhythmic sense when we're doing fast things and we both listen in a certain way and wait for each other in a certain way without a lot of signaling, actually, that was extremely satisfying."

Makarski says one of the reasons this recording was so enjoyable was because they did it for fun. "This came about by the fact that we had resuscitated our friendship after not being in touch for many years in the late fall of 2008. Then he, at the last minute, invited me over for Christmas when he realized I wasn't doing anything and he wasn't doing anything. And we had not done any playing at all since the Bridge of Light, 15 years earlier. So he said, 'We should do something special for Christmas' and I said, 'Well, what's that?' And he said, 'Well, maybe we should play something?'

"And keep in mind he hadn't done any classical for 15 years or something like this. And so I thought about what I remembered him playing most, which was Baroque music. I suggested the Bach and he said, 'Great, bring the music.' So we started playing it — not rehearsing it, just playing it. We'd play through them before dinner, after dinner..."

So Michelle Makarski and Keith Jarrett continued to play Bach, until finally, about two years later, they both had time to play more Bach and make this recording. Makarski says what was most challenging was finding the right balance between the two instruments.

"So it's kind of a classic violin/piano thing but exacerbated in this case by the fact that this is Bach on modern instruments. And Keith was absolutely fantastic about the delicacy of his playing. I did have to beef up the sound a little bit in places but nowhere near the way I would have to if I were playing with someone who wasn't extremely sensitive to the way that I wanted to approach the Bach. And he wasn't trying to accommodate me, really — he was playing it the way he wanted as well."

The Six Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard featured on this recording are masterpieces of the genre. "Bach himself is a masterpiece and wrote masterpieces," Makarski says. "There's something enormously timeless about his music. By that I mean that people that I know that have no interest in classical music whatsoever — when you play works of Bach for them, they're almost inevitably captivated in a way that they would not have expected. It's one of those great mysteries. In terms of these pieces, I can tell you that C. P. E. Bach, one of his sons, said that his father considered these some of his finest works. And that's saying a lot, for Bach."