In the first movement of the Sonata in E minor Bach plays upon the listener’s expectations of the behaviour and role meant to be played by a ‘principal theme’. What is the main theme of this movement? The bizarrely jagged gestures of the first five bars? Or the strings of repeated quavers, with arabesques imitated between the two hands, and relentless sighs that follow? Must a movement even have a definable principal theme? This ambiguous sense of motivic papillonnage is further explored in the middle Adagio in which the opening four-bar theme is ingeniously extended through an exploration of the contrasting colours afforded by the harpsichord’s two manuals. There follows a beautifully wrought Vivace in 3/8 time. More than any other movement in the Württemberg set, this movement calls upon the German manner of virtually carving melodies out of hard stone, in contrast to the light pastels and varied brushstrokes of Italian and French music. This is a dance of death, a true Totentanz of the Enlightenment, portraying a restless dancer accompanied by the most sinister Greek chorus of antiquity. Each half of the movement gives way to a fleet coda in which each semiquaver is possessed by a diabolical delight in the dissonant and the bizarre.
from notes by Mahan Esfahani © 2014