Violinist Lara St. John Digs Deeper into Bach’s Sonata Repertoire
Transcriptions for violin and harp prove a revelation for Canadian classical music star on latest CD
While some adhere to authenticity in Bach with almost religious zest, violinist Lara St. John thinks there’s nothing wrong with some creative instrumentation. “The music transcends the instruments it’s written for,” St. John says. “There’s such an art to what Bach does; so long as you do it with integrity, it can be done on any instrument.”
St. John’s newest album, released in February, is a collection of Bach sonatas performed by St. John and Berlin Philharmonic principal harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet. Two of the sonatas were penned for violin and harpsichord, and two, plus an individual movement, for flute and harpsichord.
The composer of one of the flute sonatas, in G minor, is unknown, though it is commonly attributed to Bach.
“It’s not as complicated or contrapuntal, but lovely and definitely from the same period,” St. John says of the flute sonata. “The others are very serious, so having the G minor in there lightens up the album as a whole.”
While these works are not often heard in the string repertoire, it was common practice in Bach’s time to transpose or arrange works for other instruments, particularly between flute and violin. Even though Bach would never have heard a modern harp, the spirit of the project is certainly in line with Baroque practice, she says.
St. John knew of the Sonatas for violin and harpsichord, but never connected with them as a player. That all changed while reading through sonatas in Berlin several years ago with Langlamet, whom she had first met as a fellow student at the Curtis Institute of Music.
“They never struck me, until then,” St. John says of the original works, adding that the transcriptions were a revelation. “There was just a lot more possibility with the harp, because there wasn’t this clunky part of the counterpoint behind you.”
St. John and Langlamet chose only those sonatas that were playable on harp, so no notes are left out of the original harpsichord version.
Playing with harp requires more sensitivity than with piano or harpsichord, St. John says. “You have to really start your crescendos later,” she explains, “and the whole dynamic level is a little less than with piano.”
Read a 2002 interview Lara St. John discussing Bach.
The album is the ninth that St. John has recorded on her own Ancalagon Records label and her third Bach disc on the label. About her first, The Concerto Album released in 2002, Gramophone wrote, “She makes the most ordinary passages come to life. . . . It is difficult to argue with such technically dazzling and unfailingly musical interpretations.”
Of her second album, The Six Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo released in 2007, American Record Guide opined, “I simply don’t know where else you can go to hear Bach played at this level of artistry.”
She released the physical SACD in February, preceded by brisk sales of an iTunes exclusive release in January. “I’m astonished that we’ve been in the Top Ten all week,” St. John says, speaking by phone the week of the iTunes release. “I love the way iTunes is really good to the little guy.”
Using her own label gives her a degree of artistic freedom, she says. “Nobody is dictating to me what I should record,” she says. “I make sure there are never any sacrifices of quality, which seems to happen these days.”
As for these sonatas, St. John is pleased with the results. “We think the experiment was quite a success.”