Even though they were among the last keyboard suites Bach wrote, the six Partitas, BWV 825–830, appeared from 1726 to 1730 as Clavier-Übung I, the first of Bach’s works to be published under his direction.
The format follows the typical recipe for a suite, the mandatory allemande–courante–sarabande–gigue framework expanded by the addition of an opening movement, and then the galanteries (chosen by Bach from a pool of optional extra dances) towards the end of each suite.
The Partita in B flat, the first of the set, is the lightest and most intimate, and to my mind the most charming. The gigue even ends in mid air!
The ABRSM has set the Menuets I and II for Grade 6. They make a beautiful contrasting pair of dances – the first sprightly and elegant, the second more solid and sustained.
Make sure to add your own dynamics (probably between a range from forte to piano) as well as articulations (a range of touches including legato, staccato, tenuto, leggiero, slurs and short phrasings, etc.). If you look into the score you will discover most of this is implied by the structure of the music – its shapes, designs, modulations, and patterns. Remember there is no one right way of playing this music, but many possibilities.
Menuet II is only 16 bars in length, and thicker in texture than Menuet I. This texture implies a stronger dynamic, more legato cantabile – a more solid approach in general. If you play the repeats (not required in the exam) you might play them softer and more reflectively; experiment too with the left pedal (una corda) on one of the repeats. The soft pedal can be effective in baroque music if used very occasionally on a repeat – not necessarily to change the dynamic but to change the timbre of the sound (akin to a change of registration on the harpsichord). If you use the sustaining pedal for resonance, take care not to blur the shorter notes (quavers) or the appoggiaturas (which must come on the beat, together with the left hand).
The Gigue, currently on the ABRSM Grade 7 syllabus, is unusual among Bach’s gigues – much lighter in texture, and rather delicate in character. The movement requires considerable LH skill in controlling the jumps and shaping the line, and also keeping the RH light and very close to the keys to achieve the right sound. The big G minor cadence in bar 28 might be enhanced with a touch of pedal, and a stronger dynamic. Later, from bar 32 to 40, Bach’s design gives us an opportunity for a long diminuendo to a very soft dynamic. The final phrase begins in bar 41; the most natural way to play it is with a crescendo to the end. Decide whether you want to end strongly, or with a sudden diminuendo through the final bar.
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