It’s not surprising that one of the very first solo recordings ever made on viola was of Lionel Tertis performing the famous Chaconne from the 2nd Partita. The Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin are well suited to the deeper, more introspective nature of the viola.
Since Tertis's recording in 1925, many violists have performed and recorded various movements, especially from the Partitas. Even some violinists have played them on viola; the only solo performance the great Jascha Heifetz ever gave on viola was of the Chaconne from the Second Partita.
I feel the Sonatas and Partitas are the best solo Bach the viola has. Yes, as a cycle, better than the Cello Suites. The viola is in range and technique much closer to the violin than to the cello (no matter how much some violists may try to distance themselves from the violin.) From my vantage point, it would seem natural, since we have no solo Bach of our own, to borrow from the closer instrument of the two, which is the violin.
As a cycle, the violin pieces need only to be played down a fifth. Everything works that way. As a cycle the cello suites go up an octave, but you have considerable octave leaps and/or key issues in the 6th Suite, and there are some more minor issues around the 5th Suite as well, if you feel that the viola's a-string is not the most beautiful sound tuned down a whole-step.
Bach himself transcribed many of his own works into different keys for different instrumentation-- including several movements from the Sonatas and Partitas. (Additionally, There is no evidence that when Bach transcribed and performed music from an earlier era-- a Palestrina mass for example-- that he was concerned with the performance practices of Palestrina’s day or with retaining the original instrumentation.)
But more importantly than all this technical *stuff*, there's the issue of the music. As great as the Cello Suites are, I feel the Sonatas and Partitas as an overall set are simply even greater, more interesting music. Bach, the master of polyphony, clearly felt technically freer with the violin to write more complex works. Whether we're talking about the three-part fugues, the Chaconne, or the beautiful slow movements of the sonatas, the additional lines that are close to non-existant or just hinted at in most of the Cello Suites really add to the beauty and interest of the violin S&P.
Lastly there's the issue of the viola's character and the character of the music--- compatability. This is likely the most subjective thing I have to say, but most of the Sonatas and Partitas are very introspective, contemplative (the opening movements of all three sonatas come to mind.) I think many of the movements gain depth by being played a fifth lower. While I enjoy the Cello Suites an octave higher on the viola, I'm not sure that I look at any of the movements on viola as an improvement or as enhancing their musical character, I tend to see it as just something different.
While we don't know what Bach would think of his Sonatas and Partitas on viola, we do know what Bach thought of the viola. According to one of Bach's sons, it was his father's favorite string instrument. Three years before Bach wrote the Sonatas and Partitas, J. S. even gave up his position as concertmaster of the Weimar Court Band so that he could play viola with the group.
My recording in 1998 was the first complete recording ever made on viola, and I felt so strongly about this set of works on viola, that I recorded them all for a second time in 2006, because I knew we could make a better recording. The Sonatas and Partitas have become over the past century an important part of the viola's history, and along with Paganini’s 24 Caprices, have formed what Sir Yehudi Menuhin referred to as “the twin-bibles” of upper string playing.
Click here to purchase Scott’s second complete recording (2006) of the Sonatas and Partitas.