Video Pick of the Week: Petra Poláčková Plays Bach’s Famous ‘Chaconne’; Also, an Interview with Petra!
It feels somehow appropriate that our last Video Pick of the Week before Christmas 2019 is a piece rooted in J.S. Bach’s deep Christian spirituality. The work—the “Chaconne” movement from Bach’s ViolinPartita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004—is one of the most famous in the entire solo-guitar repertoire; a sprawling, emotional, highly virtuosic benchmark for classical guitarists since Segovia.
This truly wonderful recent version is played by an excellent young guitarist from the Czech Republic named Petra Poláčková. Petra has been studying the guitar since she was 6, and received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the prestigious University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, Austria, where she studied primarily with professor Paolo Pegoraro. She has played all over Europe and in the United States, in both concerts and competitions, and she is also one of the driving forces behind the Guitar Festival Mikulov in the Czech Republic.
In this video, as well as in the special bonus performance at the bottom of the page, Petra plays a great-sounding Jan Tuláček reproduction of a 19th century Romantic guitar. And if you’d like to see more high quality videos of Ms. Poláčková playing a variety of six-string guitars, visit the site of Guitars International, which is one of the biggest U.S.-based dealers of contemporary handcrafted classical guitars. You can go directly to this page to find more Petra videos!
Right below, too, you’ll find an exclusive interview in which the guitarist talks about playing the Chaconne and more. —Blair Jackson
The Bach Chaconne has become one of the “heavyweight” works in the guitar repertoire. Can you tell me a bit about your journey in learning and mastering it? One of my former teachers at the music school spent much of his life studying and playing the Chaconne, trying to find the right character, the best fingerings, even creating a whole recording studio to record a CD with his Chaconne—which he never did!). For him, it was and possibly still is one of the hardest and most mystical works. I was not like that—I actually had no idea about it at that time. So once, when I got in a bit heavy mood, I just took the scores and started to play the piece, discovering all the stories connected to it and the difficulties in playing it much later. So, my journey was without any particular studying methods, though I had a very good score with many fingerings ready to use. I always had a good prima vista—sorry for being egoistical—and my right-hand fingerings somehow come quickly, which is not always good, of course.
I have to give credit to my former teacher, because it has become the most respected piece in my repertoire. Any time somebody asks me to perform it—I love the piece, but I rarely perform it in the public—by the time I get to the stage is like, “Oh my God ,what I am doing here with this piece?” in terms of: I have so much a respect of this piece and it’s so hard to get it now at that point at that place no matter how much I study it.
Are there versions of the Chaconne by other guitarists you particularly love and might have influenced your approach? I rarely listened to guitarists playing Bach. I was mostly listening to piano, harpsichord, violin, lute, cello or orchestral Bach recordings to get in the mood. Although, there was one CD by Stephan Schmidt, who recorded Bach’s lute works—so unfortunately, no Chaconne [which was written for solo violin]—and was released about the time I started seriously thinking of studying music. Not only was it the complete lute works played on ten-string guitar, but for us in the in Czech Republic—where CDs were expensive and still quite difficult to get from abroad it was one of the first recordings using articulation in Bach and getting the polyphony clear. This might have been my first input to perform Bach on a guitar with more than six strings.
A recording I absolutely love and still listen to are the four Bach CDs recorded by Nigel North on lute. They are still a big inspiration for me, for the extraordinary arrangements, sound, phrasing, vibrato, articulation, and harmony. There were other Bach recordings by Hopkinson Smith and Rolf Lislevand, both lute players, I listened to a lot.
Two other CDs that influenced me a lot, were Morimuer, by the Hilliard Ensemble and Christoph Poppen on violin, and De Occulta Philosophia with José Miguel Moreno on lute, Emma Kirkby (soprano) and Carlos Mena (countertenor), featuring the Chaconne with voices and either violin or lute.
Is this your own transcription? No, the transcription is made by Paolo Pegoraro, my former teacher at the University in Graz in Austria. I just changed a few little things.
Why do you think the Chaconne is so well-suited to the 9-string guitar? Well, I actually would say it is not better suited for 9-string guitar. It works perfectly on 6-string guitar, too. I just added a few basses, which might create more drama or sound depth. The Bach lute works are absolutely well-suited for at least 9-string guitar, having more range in the basses and cutting some of the finger-yoga in certain places.
Has it been difficult to master a Romantic guitar after primarily playing on a regular 6-string instrument? It has not been particularly difficult. The guitar is smaller and shorter, so everything was much easier for me. The only major difficulty is the “still-ringing” additional basses. At the beginning, I was not really aware of that. Later, especially during the recording, I had to find a way to stop the constant sound, in part to make the harmonies clearer.
What can you tell me about your next album, which I understand will be devoted to works by Weiss? I have chosen Weiss pieces that are close to my heart and soul, and I am working with the 9-string. Playing Weiss on a 6-string guitar requires changing all the lute bass strings into an upper octave. With the 9-string, I mostly don’t have to do it; I can use the original octaves written in the tabulature. That means all the pieces I recorded are as in the lute manuscript with just a few little places where I had to compromise.
I recorded Sonata L’infidèle, Tombeau sur la Mort de M. Comte Logy, his Ciacona in G minor and a Suite in D major, which is a mixture of the D major Suite II from the London Manuscript and “Allemande” and “Passagaille,” also in D major from a Dresden Manuscript. The CD is called Weiss, and the cover was painted by my friend Hana Mikulenková, who I studied with in high school. We were always joking that when I record my first CD she will do the cover. Later, I went to study music and she went to study arts and became an extraordinarily sensitive painter. That CD should be released in January 2020.
I understand that you work closely on the Guitar Festival Mikulov. What is your involvement with that operation? In 2010 I became a part of the Guitar Festival Mikulov team. It’s a guitar festival with the longest tradition in Czech Republic—2020 will be the 34th edition! I have participated at master classes as a student and also performed at some of the prize winners’ concerts. We are a team, so everybody is involved a bit in everything. I am basically running the web page, preparing all the print materials—translations included— and I am in contact with the artists and also preparing the documents for several institutions, foundations, and sponsors. During the festival, we all do everything, from preparing coffee, through translating, to driving the artists to the airport.
Do you have any long-term plans musically—perhaps other composers you’d like to investigate and play? I am preparing a program for another recording—either a Mertz-only, or a Mertz-Legnani CD. I would love to make a Ponce recording too. I am constantly working on Bach and Dowland. I would also like to get into French Baroque music, into Czech composers’ guitar or lute literature, and… and… and—I would like to have at least three lifetimes to play all the beautiful music we have!
Special bonus video: Watch Petra play Tombeau sur la Mort de M. Comte d’Logy from her forthcoming S.L. Weiss album. Visuals and audio for both videos recorded by Drew Henderson.