Something Old / Something New

Bach Violin Sonatas

J.S. Bach’s works for solo violin are compositional marvels that show off the instrument’s potential while allowing the musician to indulge in intellectual and emotional exploration. In three recent recordings, violinists have taken on the challenge of proving themselves worthy of this glorious music.

German violinist Christian Tetzlaff  (seen above) is the rare bird who can genuinely be said to play Baroque and Romantic composers equally well. If this were only a matter of technique, the accomplishment would not be so rare. It takes a deep understanding of the way European musical language changed through the centuries. Tetzlaff is not an early-music specialist, but he gets Bach at a deep level. His 2017 recording on the Ondine label of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (his third recording of the cycle) proves that. Again.

I tend to test a player’s Baroque sea-legs, so to speak, by seeing how they do with preludes or similar opening movements, intended in the tradition to have an improvisatory sound even when they were carefully composed, as Bach’s were. So, here’s Tetzlaff playing the Preludio that opens the Partita No. 3 in E major. Fiery yet precise, with a clear declamation of all those polyphonic layers that Bach gives to the violin one note at a time, like the tiny folds in a huge origami castle.

 

Maybe the secret of Tetzlaff’s sound is his ability to wield razor-sharp technical mastery with both massive strength and lacy delicacy. The Fuga from the Sonata No. 1 in G minor is a jungle bloom floating on the tide; you worry that a wave will crush its wondrous beauty.

 

Of course, any review of the Sonatas and Partitas must by law mention the beloved Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D minor. Baroque authenticity hard-liners will argue with the tempo, the amount of rubato, the vibrato. True, those aspects are all “wrong” from the standpoint of historically informed performance. Nevertheless, this particular recording is an explosion of color and light that left me breathless. Tetzlaff gives clear purpose to every one of Bach’s harmonic motions, painting them in an endless range of dynamics and textures for intricate emotional effect.

 

Bach’s hand-written score of the violin sonatas and partitas was marked with the German phrase “Sei Solo” (Let it be a solo). That instruction was necessary in the late Baroque because everyone assumed that melodic instrumental and vocal music would be accompanied at the very least by some instrument that could play chords. That was the default, you might say. So those unaccompanied works were somewhat unusual – not for Bach, but for the Baroque in general.

Nevertheless, in the early 1720s Bach did also write six of the more common type of violin sonata, where the solo instrument is supported by harpsichord. This is not quite the same as traditional basso continuo, because in these Bach sonatas the harpsichord part is almost entirely written out rather than using “figured bass,” the chord abbreviations common at the time. During Bach’s time, the word “Sonata” implies a suite of four or five movements with Italian tempo markings.

Happily, all six of Bach’s Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord have recently come out in a riveting recording from Harmonia Mundi, featuring violinist Isabelle Faust and harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout.

The opening Adagio of the Sonata 1 in B minor, BWV 1014 is more aching than stately, which prepares the listener for Faust’s approach to this music. Bezuidenhout starts on his own, and then Faust enters subtly, as if her violin were an outgrowth of his harpsichord.

Instead of giving declaratory statements, her phrases in the slow movement meander, like Ophelia’s songs before she drowns. That sound is thanks in part to Faust’s use of gut strings to give her late-17th century instrument an authentic Baroque timbre. She’s also avoiding vibrato, which makes each pull of her bow like a keening. The slight madness of the violin line reminds me of Andrew Manze’s “stilus phantasticus” recordings and concerts with his trio Romanesca some twenty years ago.

The second movement, although it’s marked Allegro, refuses to be chipper. Each phrase seems to find Faust and Bezuidenhout reaching for something. The perfection of their ensemble is almost beyond belief. Every tiny pause or lift at phrase ending or climax could be a single creature breathing.

But Faust is not stuck in some thick emotional cocoon. When she needs to shake off the drama, she does so, as in the Sonata 2 in A major, BWV 1015. She and Bezuidenhout take the tempo marking of the third movement, Andante un poco (literally, “going a little”) to heart with a rather brisk walking pace. This exquisite movement has a highly ornamented French style, which Faust executes with convincing majesty.

The Presto that closes the second sonata flows swiftly without any sense of being rushed; I imagine it’s how someone in an 18th century courts would need to appear entirely in control even if she were late to dinner with the king. Quick and purposeful, not strident or panicked.

None of the tracks of this excellent recording are available on YouTube, but you can hear all six sonatas on Spotify:

And here’s a charming and informative interview with the two artists discussing their instruments and this repertoire:

 

Mastering these works is not as easy as some might imagine. Guido de Neve also recorded the accompanied sonatas recently on the Etcetera label, with fellow Belgian Frank Agsteribbe on harpsichord. There’s less skill and magic in this pairing than we get from the Faust/Bezuidenhout duo.

De Neve seems to consider these sonatas to be solo works with backing, rather than a seamless and equal joint effort. That effect is surely helped along by the sound production – the harpsichord is less acoustically prominent than the violin – but it’s also in de Neve’s playing. You can hear this in the opening Largo of Sonata 4 in C minor, BWV 1017. The violin’s voice is detached, floating above Agsteribbe’s key-strikes rather than in tandem with them, as if the harpsichord were weaving a safety net below.

 

The cooperation between players is more convincing in Sonata 5 in F minor, BWV 1018, but that accomplishment is undermined by some baffling musical choices. For example, they play the fourth movement like an Allegretto (if you’re being generous), but Bach marked it Vivace. This is not my definition of lively:

 

Pop over to Spotify right now and listen to Faust and Bezuidenhout skip nimbly through the same movement. You’ll be glad you did.