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Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin is a summit of Western music: as a technical and musical challenge, the violinist’s Everest. But musicians have not been content to leave this masterpiece solely in the fiddle’s intimate four-stringed domain. The famed conductor Leopold Stokowski created an immense orchestral version in the 1930s. And pianists have long made the Chaconne a concert favorite in the elaborate and virtuosic transcription by the legendary Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni.

But they say tennis is no fun without a net. And in crafting his austere and perhaps more reverential vision, Johannes Brahms was seeking a different musical truth. Presenting his transcription to Clara Schumann (his friend and the widow of Robert Schumann), Brahms wrote: “The Chaconne is, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful and most incomprehensible pieces of music. Using the technique adapted to a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.  If one has no supremely great violinist at hand, the most exquisite of joys is probably simply to let the Chaconne ring in one’s mind. But the piece certainly inspires one to occupy oneself with it somehow…. There is only one way in which I can secure undiluted joy from the piece, though on a small and only approximate scale, and that is when I play it with the left hand alone…. The same difficulty, the nature of the technique, the rendering of the arpeggios, everything conspires to make me feel like a violinist!”

Majesty and vastness are easily conjured when two hands and a grand piano, or for that matter a full symphony orchestra, are called into service.  But it is far more challenging to recognize that the true genius of the Chaconne is that it achieves its immenseness within the confinements of a single violin, and then to seek to inhabit on the piano this achievement with just the left hand alone.

Grant Hiroshima, former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, is a frequent contributor to the program book.