Saturday, October 2, 2021

Bach and the violin

There is probably no greater challenge for violinists than the interpretation of the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is like climbing Mount Everest. It is extremely difficult and not everyone gets there. Nowadays a historical instrument or in any case an interpretation according to the principles of historical performance practice is almost a prerequisite for a convincing performance. The career of the exceptional violinist Thomas Zehetmair [1] is particularly revealing. He has always felt just as comfortable in the baroque repertoire as in contemporary music. His curiosity guarantees that he gets to the bottom of every work. The focus is not on his own abilities, but always on the music. It resulted in his studying these works with Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the early days of his career when he played in the Concentus musicus Wien. This resulted in a recording, at that time still on a modern violin and with a modern bow. This was reissued a few years ago and is still of great importance. For those who are skeptical of historical instruments, it may serve as a bridge between 'new' and 'old'. In 2019, ECM released a new recording of these works from 2016, and this time Zehetmair turned to period instruments. He plays two different baroque violins and two baroque bows. His starting point has not changed in comparison to the first recording: his interpretation is based on the principle of 'music as speech', as Harnoncourt once pithily summed up the character of baroque music in the title of a book. This is expressed here in the treatment of phrasing and articulation as well as dynamics and tempo. It is notable that Zehetmair allows himself more freedom in these matters today. In doing so, he does not deviate from the principles of historical performance practice. He has internalized them and can now bring in his own views. After all, it is one of the characteristics of historical performance practice that one's own personality may be part of it and that one may adapt the interpretation to the circumstances. This explains the differences between the many recordings that are available. Which one to prefer is ultimately a matter of taste. I like this new interpretation by Zehetmair very much. Technically, his playing is impressive. It is amazing how in some of the movements he plays at high speed, the articulation remains very clear and he also manages to dynamically differentiate between good and bad notes. Dynamic shading is also carefully dosed, for example in the ciaccona from the Partita No. 2. It starts out very powerful, but then there are quieter passages. This movement is an example of one in a relatively brisk tempo (12'29"). Others are the fugue and the presto from the Sonata No. 1 and the concluding allegro from the Sonata No. 2. But even then Zehetmair varies the tempo: the allegro from the second sonata is not as fast as the fugue of the first. It is also nice - and this can also be interpreted as a sign of internalization - that he plays ornaments in repeats. As one may know, this is a matter of debate among interpreters and scholars. However, one doesn't need to fully agree with every decision in order to regard this interpretation as a monument of Bach interpretation. I personally prefer strong restraint in this matter, but that does not prevent me from putting this recording at the top of my list of favourite recordings of these works. Another which is high at my list is the one by Amandine Beyer (ZigZag Territoires, 2011). I would also like to mention Gunar Letzbor (PanClassics, 2013/2014), who has something special to offer in that you can hear what the player himself is hearing while playing. It is something one needs to get used to, but it is very revealing and intriguing, and Letzbor is obviously a superb performer.

The second recording of the sonatas and partitas is quite different. I hesitated whether to review it at all because we are dealing here with a compromise between traditional and historical performance practice. Such compromises are not uncommon, and they are seldom convincing. Tomás Cotik's interpretation [2] is no exception. He plays a modern violin in modern tuning (a = 440 Hz). He does not use gut strings, but rather synthetic strings that produce a slightly milder sound. It is hardly noticeable, because Cotik's tone is unplesantly penetrating, compared to the sound of the baroque violins that Zehetmair plays. Cotik does play with a baroque bow, but that makes little sense if the violin is from a different aesthetic tradition. 'Music as speech' is not the foundation of this performance, because Cotik often plays legato and there is little difference between good and bad notes. His tempos are often a little faster than Zehetmair's: for the ciaccona of the second partita he only needs 10'55" (vs 12'29"), but his fast movements sound hasty and therefore superficial. In the allegro of the second sonata he largely omits dynamic contrasts. The preceding andante is then again too slow: he takes it for an adagio. Where Zehetmair's playing always breathes, even at the fastest tempos, the listener gets breathless with Cotik. It's all too much of the same. I was often bored listening to it. That’s a bad sign.

Plamena Nikitassova and Peter Waldner [3] have recorded a mixed programme in which the two major cycles are represented. They play three of the six sonatas for harpsichord and violin (Nos. 3, 4 and 6); in addition Nikitassova plays the Sonata No. 3 for solo violin and Waldner the Adagio BWV 968, which is an arrangement of the first movement of the sonata. The aim of this production was not primarily to present works by Bach; after all, there are many recordings of these pieces. The focus is on the instruments they use. Plamena Nikitassova plays a Stainer violin owned by the Tiroler Landesmuseums Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck. Stainer violins were played in Central Germany in Bach's time, and he may have owned such a violin himself. The harpsichord is a copy of an instrument by Johann Heinrich Harraß, made by Jürgen Ammer. There are no details about this instrument in the booklet, but in several works I noted the use of a 16' register, for instance in the Adagio BWV 968. The existence of instruments with a 16' register in Bach's time is documented. The question is when and in what kind of music it was used and whether Bach used it himself, but that may be impossible to answer. The performer's personal taste also plays a role. In any case, I am not very enthusiastic about interpretations in which this register is used. That doesn't compromise my generally positive assessment of this production. These two excellent musicians bring convincing interpretations. Plamena Nikitassova's performance of Sonata No. 3 is very good; her tempi are somewhat more moderate than Zehetmair's, and I rate his realisation of the double stopping a little higher, but both performances are based on the same principles. This comes also to the fore in the three sonatas for harpsichord and violin, which are performed in a speechlike manner. with a clear articulation and appropriate dynamic differentiation. The problem, however, is the balance between the instruments, which is too much in favour of the violin. It is rather odd that a harpsichord with a 16' register struggles to hold its own against the violin.

The sonatas for harpsichord and violin (BWV 1014-1019) are among the most frequently performed and recorded chamber music works by Bach. Several recordings have come onto the market in recent years. Most of them have nothing special to offer, and it is regrettable that the performers don't turn to less common repertoire. However, one recent recording is different from almost any other. Freddy Eichelberger and Odile Edouard [4] wanted to celebrate a collaboration of thirty years with a new recording. They have often performed repertoire from the 17th century, but Bach has always been a thread through the careers of both musicians. And so the idea came about to record the sonatas for harpsichord and violin. Eichelberger is first and foremost an organist, so it was an obvious choice to play the harpsichord part on the organ. There is no historical argument for this decision. It seems highly unlikely that Bach ever did so himself. That does not mean that these sonatas cannot be performed this way. In the baroque era composers and performers were pretty pragmatic in choosing instruments. Ultimately, it's the result that matters. The booklet rightly points out that the balance between the harpsichord and the violin is problematic. I can confirm that on the basis of several recordings, including the one just mentiioned. Too often the violin dominates, whereas both instruments are treated on equal footing by Bach. In a performance with organ, there is little chance that it will dominate. However, here it is rather the other way around. There are some moments when the organ overshadows the violin. There are no such problems in the two sonatas for violin and basso continuo (BWV 1021 and 1023); there the organ plays a more modest role. Eichelberger has selected three organs that suit Bach's style. He also plays some organ works in between the sonatas. Despite the critical remarks, I recommend this set of discs to Bach lovers, because it offers an opportunity to hear these pieces in a different way. Eichelberger and Edouard deliver good performance, but I would have liked stronger dynamic contrasts in the violin part.

The last disc then focusses on the sonatas for violin and basso continuo. Several such sonatas are attributed to Bach, but only two are considered authentic: BWV 1021 in G and BWV 1023 in e minor. La Divina Armonia [5] - Mayumi Hirasaki (violin), Anna Camporini (cello) and Lorenzo Ghielmi (harpsichord) - has recorded both sonatas and the Sonata in c minor (BWV 1024), which is of doubtful authenticity and whose composer could not yet be established with any amount of certainty. The fourth work is the Sonata for harpsichord and violin BWV 1022, which has its origin in a trio sonata by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, that in turn is derived from the sonata BWV 1021. The program is expanded with two harpsichord works, which also have their origins in violin works: the Sonata in d minor (BWV 964) - an arrangement of the Sonata No. 2 for violin solo - and the Adagio in G (BWV 968), which was originally conceived as the first movement of the Sonata No. 3 for violin solo. The result is a programme of strong coherence and at the same time variety in scoring. From these artists one expects first class performances and that is exactly what we get here. The balance between the instruments is exactly right. Mayumi Hirasaki plays beautifully and dynamically differentiated, both in the contrast between good and bad notes and on long notes. Ghielmi delivers speechlike performances of the harpsichord works. The choice of tempi is also convincing; the andante of the Sonata BWV 964, for example, is played at a nice walking tempo and not like an adagio. Everything is right here.

[1] "The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo"
Thomas Zehetmair, violin
ECM New Series 2551/52 (2 CDs) (© 2019) details

[2] "Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo"
Tomás Cotik, violin
Centaur CRC 3755/3756 (2 CDs) (© 2019) details

[3] "Sonaten"
Plamena Nikitassova, violin; Peter Waldner, harpsichord
Musikmuseum CD13045 (© 2020) details

[4] "Trios pour clavier et violon"
Freddy Eichelberger, organ; Odile Edouard, violin
L'Encelade ECL 1704 (3 CDs) (© 2020) details

[5] "Sonatas for violin and basso continuo"
La Divina Armonia
Passacaille PAS 1077 (© 2020) details

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