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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (ca. 1720)
Sonata No.1 in G minor BWV 1001 [15:10]
Partita No.1 in B minor BWV 1002 [25:34]
Sonata No.2 in A minor BWV 1003 [21:29]
Partita No.2 in D minor BWV 1004 [28:35]
Sonata No.3 in C major BWV 1005 [21:53]
Partita No.3 in E major BWV 1006 [17:32]
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
rec. 2016, Sendesaal Bremen.
ONDINE ODE1299-2D [62:30 + 68:20]

This is Christian Tetzlaff’s third outing with J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. The first of these dates from 1993 and has long been quite a favourite on Virgin Classics (review). The first revisit was in 2005 on the Hänssler Classic label, recorded much more closely and, while still musically and technically superb, to my ears a less attractive listen than the first version. This Ondine recording falls somewhere between the previous two in terms of perspective, with more distance between listener and player than in 2005, more detail and less resonance than in Bristol back in 1993.

Tetzlaff writes with honesty in the booklet notes for this release, that “Bach is definitely a composer with whom I make an effort to grow. I have played these pieces a lot, so that now I feel freer… I do not believe that anything about my view has changed fundamentally from what it was on earlier recordings, but I am now able to enjoy more the natural depth and freedom of this music.” With freedom has come even more refinement, and a sense of inner peace with the remarkable expressive worlds and multiple voices in these works. Everything breathes with a kind of joy from inhabiting the music so completely, and the times you have to pinch yourself as a reminder that this is only a single violinist rather than a duet are surprisingly frequent.

Tetzlaff approaches these performances from a softer base dynamic, giving his gorgeous sounding instrument space to develop sonority and allowing climaxes to sing rather than become melodramatic gestures. This air of quiet draws the listener in, maintaining intensity and structural intensity in the music and at no point becoming flaccid or pretentious. As a starter take the contrast between the gentle Siciliana and final Presto of BWV 1001, the first an amorous declaration love in a secluded arbor, the second an ecstatic delight-fuelled dance when that declaration has been accepted and requited. Everything is on a human scale and stated in ways that make you connect with both player and composer. Like a well-read Shakespearian sonnet, the message is clear in that moment of hearing it, though no doubt it will mean something else when heard each time your own mood has moved on.

The Chaconne from BWV 1004 is of course the sun around which all of these musical planets revolve, and is also a marker for the rest of this cycle, as Tetzlaff sees it, “a cycle on each individual level…” The opening is no theatrically dramatic entrance, this fourteen-minute journey one in which energy needs first to be gathered. Tetzlaff explores this masterpiece’s lyricism to the full, allowing just enough rubato for melodic notes to sing while managing to balance harmonic accompaniments in both dynamic and colour. There is a flow to this playing which is fascinating, compelling and confiding in its relatively understated progress. There are moments of absolute repose and vanishing softness, such as the major-key transformation that starts at 7:10, and the start of the final build-up from 11:20. Even the final reprise of the opening theme is a gentle lowering of the curtain rather than an extrovert flourish – a sad departure rather than a sweeping exit. All of this lends a magical feel to this music in a performance that has us rediscovering Bach and forgetting that this is a technical tour-de-force that has challenged the mettle of violinists for many generations.

Comparing this recording with that of Gil Shaham on Canary Classics (review) is interesting. Shaham is also more interested in the music than in showmanship, but creates a different relationship with something like that great Chaconne, pointing out layers of significant musical moment and at times playing the bits in between more like passing notes. This creates its own narrative, but by comparison you feel you are missing something, there being entire pages that are ‘passing’. Like Bach’s C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier you have to decide if you accept that every note is a melodic note or not and solve your problems from that basis. Shaham is excellent and a player I can listen to with pleasure any time, but after hearing 2016 Tetzlaff I find myself wanting that more immersive experience.

With so many versions of these works around only you can decide whether this will be an essential purchase, but even after quite some time trawling around my usual library streaming haunts I found that very few indeed match this latest of Christian Tetzlaff’s recordings.

Dominy Clements



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