Bach Two Ways: Recent violin recordings of the Sonatas and Partitas reveal striking interpretive differences

By Sasha Margolis | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

These two new releases offer radically distinct visions of Bach’s unaccompanied violin music. Drawing upon differing strands of historical performance practice, they also provide contrasting ideas about the role of the artist’s personality in this music.

The differences begin with equipment. Tomás Cotik chooses an intriguing blend of period and modern gear: a Baroque bow with a nineteen-year-old violin, tuned to A=440, and strung with synthetic strings, which Cotik says are “slightly softer and more resonant than the ones that I use regularly.” The result is an appealingly open tone, beautifully plain and pale in movements such as the D minor Allemande and Sarabande, and geared toward lightness and simplicity in faster music.


Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin 
Tomás Cotik, violin (Centaur)

Thomas Zehetmair, who recorded his first Bach set in 1983 on modern equipment, opts this time for a pair of period violins, tuned to about A=410: for the sonatas, a 1750 Eberle, slightly broader in sound, and for the partitas, a mildly brighter South Tyrolean instrument from 1685. Matched with replicas of two bows dating from 1720 (when Bach’s works were written) and recorded at the ancient St. Gerold monastery in the Austrian Alps, these violins allow Zehetmair to realize the extraordinary range of colors he perceives in Bach’s score.

Zehetmair’s adoptions from historical practice include a reliance on strong and weak beats for creating large shapes, and an extensive use of ornamentation, not only in repeated portions of short movements, but also within arpeggiations in the G minor Fugue and the Chaconne. Departures from historical practice include certain dramatic bow strokes, along with dynamic extremes enabled by the ecclesiastic acoustic. Zehetmair’s ghostly B-minor doubles evoke an organ or recorder; his contrasts between spectral slurs and solid staccati sometimes create a kind of musical chiaroscuro.


Sei Solo 
Thomas Zehetmair, violin (ECM New Series)

Cotik remains within consistent dynamic regions for broad swaths of music, but does not generally adopt strong-weak patterns or clipped slurring, despite his use of a Baroque bow. His shaping is simple, and he excels in monophonic movements such as the doubles of the B minor Partita; his C major Allegro assai is especially virtuosic. Occasionally, as in the G minor Presto, a seeming loss of contact between Baroque bow and synthetic string results in loss of articulation and rhythmic clarity.

Zehetmair is adept in his handling of Bach’s heftiest movements. His Chaconne is extraordinary in its progression of moods, his C major Fugue confidently gentle, and the arrangement of polyphonic voices throughout is never less than perfectly clear.

Here, Cotik suffers by comparison. He elects to always break triple-stops, perhaps owing to his choice of bow, and in repeated triple-stopping these breaks can take on an obtrusive rhythmic character. Elsewhere, the rhythm with which he organizes the voicing of large chords can become difficult to follow.

Ultimately, these two artists will appeal to different listeners. Cotik’s Bach will seem refreshingly straightforward to some, insufficiently opinionated to others, while Zehetmair’s will appear either eccentric or revelatory.