Bach’s works for solo violin and cello are the Shakespearean monologues of the string world: The indefinable balance of technical mastery and interpretive insight they require is the touchstone of a great artist.
Thomas May talks to six eminent violinists (Rachel Podger, Christian Tetzlaff, James Ehnes, Isabelle Faust, Gil Shaham, and Mark Kaplan) about their overwhelming passion for the solo sonatas and partitas—and their recent contributions to the legacy of these works
In today’s culture, “classical music” can be an especially frustrating, inadequate term. But if you want an ideal example of the timeless quality that it’s meant to convey, few works are as up to the task as J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin (BWV 1001–1006). Completed in 1720, just three years before Bach began his lengthy post in Leipzig, these are classics in the sense of compositions that can never be exhausted—works that entice performers and listeners to keep coming back and to deepen their understanding over a lifetime, over generations.
That’s one reason the idea of a “benchmark” recording seems almost quaint nowadays—not to mention pointless. It’s an effort just to keep up with the flood of worthy new accounts that in recent years have been released of these 32 movements for solo violin—coincidentally, the same number as that of Beethoven’s cycle of piano sonatas, which occupy a similar role for pianists.
Could it even be that we’ve entered a new golden age for interpretations of these icons of the violin repertoire?
“I think we live in wonderful times when it comes to these pieces,” observes Christian Tetzlaff, who just made his third recording of the complete Sonatas and Partitas this fall. When they were rediscovered after an initial period of neglect, he points out, the misconception that they were essential “exercise works” was a major stumbling block.
Just as importantly, though, “we have overcome this hero worship of composers” that made so many violinists over the last century approach this music “in a grandiose, big-sounding way. I can only say how sad it is that the moments of dancing and weeping and laughing seem to be missing. How could these be absent when you’re playing the most communicative music on the planet? Now, though, we see Bach as a living, deep soul who speaks to us—and we have the tools to perform these pieces with strong emotions, with a speaking quality that tells their narrative.”
Gil Shaham concurs that “now may be the best time to be playing Bach.” Gains in scholarship and in players’ understanding of performance practice in Bach’s time have fired the imaginations of violinists across the spectrum. Shaham toured across North America last season to present his new multimedia approach to the Sonatas and Partitas, playing to the accompaniment of immersive videos created by the artist and photographer David Michalek.
“David became very interested in the reading of these works as possibly having a religious subtext that has been lost for audiences today—even though the affect the music produces remains the same, as with the descending bass lamento. His idea was to see if there was some way of using our visual technology to enhance that.”
Decoding the Map
The early-music revolution of the past half-century has had an incalculably profound impact on approaches to these works. Rachel Podger, a Baroque violinist and one of the foremost exponents of period-style interpretations of Bach, points out that while the manuscripts may seem plain for those used to the wealth of playing indications in scores of the last two centuries, “the structure and the style—how to articulate and what kind of figuration—become very clear if you know the language of the time.”
For example, she explains, the harmony dictates what should be emphasized: “You would most likely play a dissonant chord more strongly than a consonant one.” If a violinist follows what is known of the practices of Bach’s time (through such sources as playing treatises), what otherwise appear to be undifferentiated notes on the page come alive with startling vividness: “It’s almost like reading a map. The music comes off the page, like a 3D projection.”
What Podger emphatically does not mean is that all this knowledge about Bach and performance practice is merely a matter of obeying rules. “Of course there are different ways of going left or right. You might take a tight bend or spend longer getting there. Once you know the rules, then you have a personal freedom as to how you are going to tell that story.”
In fact, Podger remarks that her Baroque-era stylistic perspective has only confirmed her sense of the universality of Bach’s music. “What is so compelling for me is the clarity of the structure combined with this kind of divine inspiration. I can see how it all makes sense on the page, but there is so much more to it. This is where the universality comes in. Bach’s music goes beyond any borders, where other composers like Vivaldi are more confined. I recently overheard a student practicing one of the partitas on a marimba, and it sounded fantastic! Bach is so versatile that you can still hear the music in all its genius.”
More Is Never Enough
As with actors preparing to play an iconic Shakespeare role, violinists savor the limitless potential of the Sonatas and Partitas. Naturally there’s an inevitable sense of competition—both with the weight of legendary past accounts and with one’s contemporaries—yet these are the sorts of masterpieces that also encourage coexistence. One interpretation begets new ones—often by the same artist.
Christian Tetzlaff made his first recording 22 years ago, even before he had played the Sonatas and Partitas in public. “Since then I have played them more and more. Playing them often liberates you and makes you more daring and secure in what you want to say.” Yet the mistakenly monumental understanding of Bach from the mid-20th century, he says, with its “inflexible ideas,” took some time to completely liberate himself from.
“My second recording is maybe slightly better because I got further away, but the space [a church in Norway] posed other problems.” For his third venture, Tetzlaff says he at last had the advantage of having found his ideal recording space—Bremen Radio’s Sendesaal, where he has recorded for the last three years—as well as his ideal producer, Christoph Franke, who heads the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall team.
The experience of continually coming back to these works has led Tetzlaff to conclude that they constitute a unified cycle and should be performed as such. “It’s important to feel this amazing journey into darkness and then to rise up again. Bach starts with a low G in G minor and in the last partita starts with a high E in E major. The entire progression, with its references to what has come earlier, makes this one of the first huge cycles: a journey clearly worked out to find the dark center of gravity in the Chaconne and then to the major fugue and jubilant C major [of the Third Sonata] and on to E major.”
This progression, Tetzlaff adds, differs from Beethoven’s familiar “triumph over darkness” trajectory. “In Beethoven there is a sense of pride and of overcoming and pushing the other things aside, whereas Bach is not about his own triumph but about knowing that this is what life is like.”
Mark Kaplan, who plays the “Marquis” Stradivari built in 1685, recorded his first account about 25 years ago, when available recordings were just a fraction of the number now on the market. Last spring Bridge Records released his second complete recording. What keeps drawing an artist like Kaplan back to these works?
“I had been working on solo Bach for years and had performed the cycle many times, and I finally felt confident that I knew what I wanted to do with these works,” recalls Kaplan about his decision to make his first recording in the early 1990s. “I rarely listen to my own recordings, but a few years ago I turned on the car radio and heard my first Bach recording. I really enjoyed it, but it seemed like someone else’s interpretation—and of course it was someone else: It was myself a few decades younger, and it seemed completely appropriate to that person.”
And yet, Kaplan continues, “I realized how much my understanding of the works had changed, and I started thinking that maybe I could make a recording appropriate to the person I am now.” One critic describes the result as “[combining] the best of the Italian and German approaches to violin playing.”
The paradox of Bach’s timeless achievement is that it inspires artists to continue striving to capture its essence, which in turn highlights the mutability of an artist’s development over time. “The music that Bach wrote,” says Kaplan, “has as much permanence as any of the greatest written music. However, our performances of it are very impermanent, and I feel that recorded performances are only very slightly more lasting than live ones.
“The performance traditions and knowledge surrounding these pieces have changed dramatically over the past half-century, and they are continuing to change. So for me, the real legacy of this music is a continuously evolving cultural-artistic endeavor that today spans not only many violinists but also many cultures and traditions and—with the help of recordings—also many generations.”
Kaplan regards his work teaching Bach at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music as an integral part of his engagement with this music. “My own very small part in that legacy consists not only in my performances and recordings but also in my teaching.”
The Illusion of ‘Getting It Right’
It’s typical for a star violinist to have played the Sonatas and Partitas intensively since student days while delaying for years the decision to record them. Isabelle Faust refers to the distracting perfectionism that sometimes needs to be overcome. The German violinist waited until 2010 to commit her hugely acclaimed interpretation to disc (Harmonia Mundi), which won the coveted Diapason d’or de l’année.
“I think with this repertoire there are too many questions that can never possibly be answered to feel ‘ready’ in the sense of having reached a ‘definite’ interpretation. Every day I have doubts about certain decisions one has to make when playing Bach. When I realized that certainty about many aspects in this music is illusionary, I started to think that it might be a good moment to record.”
Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes, on the other hand, committed the Sonatas and Partitas to record very early in his career, in 2000, when he was only 24 (winning the Juno Award for Best Classical Album Solo). He has no current plans to re-record the Bach but in recent years has become increasingly passionate about performing these pieces live. At last summer’s Montreux Festival, Ehnes gave a marathon concert of the complete cycle in one evening.
“That experience forces you to be as creative as possible so as not to lose your audience. Take the movements with doubles in the First Partita, where all the movements have a variation on what you’ve just played, over a 30-minute stretch of solo violin. How do you keep your audience fascinated and involved so they don’t zone out on you? It’s a real feeling of responsibility: Here is one of the greatest pieces ever written and I need to make sure everyone in the room realizes that.”
Ehnes also talks about the delicate balance between confidence in one’s own interpretive conclusions and the impetus from other artists. “Bach requires that you play with the kind of commitment that will command attention. And that means you have to feel like what you are doing is the way it has to be. But if you don’t listen with an open mind to different accounts, you are throwing away opportunities to be inspired by other musicians—great colleagues or past musicians.”
The real mistake for a classical musician to avoid, says Ehnes, comes from trying “to check all the boxes and be correct. The deeper you get into the industry, the more you realize there are such strong prejudices about how things need to be, what edition you’re using—things that only a tiny percent of your audience will care about. The key thing to remember as a performer is that what people are looking for is a performance that is riveting and commanding and committed.”
Writing to the first biographer of J.S. Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach declared that his father “understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments.” Although the little-traveled Johann Sebastian achieved international acclaim for his legendary keyboard virtuosity, he was also a master violinist.
“Just look at the violin writing in the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto,” says Gil Shaham. “It’s clear he was a virtuoso violinist himself. Maybe the violin had a personal significance for him. He was orphaned at a young age, and his father may have taught him to play the violin before he died.” And apart from their artistic significance, mastering the technical and expressive challenges posed by the Sonatas and Partitas is thought to provide the most thorough grounding for a solo career.
How much of a difference, then, does the choice of instrument make in interpreting the Sonatas and Partitas? “It’s of minor importance for me in the solo violin works,” says Isabelle Faust. “Here the violin doesn’t have to blend in or find the perfect balance with other instruments. Of course articulation issues become much easier with a Baroque bow. Gut string timbre can be partly created even on metal strings. For my recording I used a Stradivari violin and a Baroque bow copy.”
For his recording, which he made a few seasons ago as part of a residency with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gil Shaham had a Baroque bow made for him modeled after a German bow from 1730—and played his beloved 1699 “Countess Polignac” Strad, outfitted with three gut strings and a Baroque bridge, a setup he teasingly calls “Baroque-ish.”
“I guess you could liken it to the sound Leopold Mozart describes in his violin book, when he says the round bow ‘has a small softness in the beginning of each stroke.’ But I wouldn’t claim this was an authoritative instrument.”
“For me personally it works best on a Baroque instrument with that knowledge of the language,” says Rachel Podger. “The Baroque instrument has a thicker neck, so to get the chords in tune is more difficult, and the gut string sound doesn’t project and resonate as well as modern strings. People liken the difference to candlelight versus modern electric light. But whether you play a modern or Baroque instrument, [these works] are the pinnacle of the violin repertoire.”
It’s hard to think of other works that marry virtuosity with depth as intricately—and inextricably—as Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas.
The virtuosity of Bach’s polyphonic sleight-of-hand (sustaining the illusion of multiple performers in the fugues, for example) attracts much attention, but for Tetzlaff, “the slow movements are the gems and most beautiful parts of the cycle, and they are the ‘easiest’ to play. Even more than his contrapuntal abilities, what amazes me is Bach’s ability to write a melody that melts your heart right away.”