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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 [14:18]
Partita No.1 in B minor BWV 1002 [24:48]
Sonata No.2 in A minor BWV 1003 [20:16]
Partita No.2 in D minor BWV 1004 [27:32]
Sonata No.3 in C major BWV 1005 [22:44]
Partita No.3 in E major BWV 1006 [16:56]
Thomas Zehetmair (violin)
rec. 2016, Propstei St Gerold.
ECM NEW SERIES 2551/52 (4818558) [59:21 + 67:12]

Johann Sebastian Bach’s set of six works for solo violin stands as a pinnacle of the instrument’s literature, and a summit climbed by all of the great soloists. Thomas Zehetmair recorded the set for Teldec back in the 1980s on a fine recording that has since been re-released by Warner Classics and Brilliant Classics. Here he revisits the repertoire on period instruments, playing an Eberle violin of c.1750 and an unknown violin from c.1685 of South Tyrolian origin. The tonal colour of these period violins is deeper than Zehetmair’s modern instrument rendition, and this is also reflected in interpretations with a wider range and variety in the texture of the sound compared to his earlier recording. Both have their introspective and exploratory sides, though this becomes entirely relative when comparing some of the alternatives: Zehetmair can be pretty explosive at his most intense.

There are many beautiful things in this recording, but Zehetmair’s approach is not one of beautification. His wide dynamic contrasts deliver something declamatory in a movement such as the Allemanda that starts BWV 1002, and there is a magical effect in the whispering tone used for the following Double. Zehetmair is very much his own man and is happy to break with convention when it suits him. There are wild rides, stately processions, ghostly renditions that float and at times barely make an impression on the air, and theatrical fireworks that impress in every regard. The litmus test of any such a collection is of course the famous Ciaconna that concludes Partita No. 2, BWV 1004. This has everything, and Zehetmair does not disappoint, opening with a stately tempo and contrasting rhetorical flourishes with those confiding moments of stillness that draw you in. Everything impresses here, but it is the musicality and feel for dramatic narrative that keeps me involved, and this performance has it all in abundance. There is for instance a section in the seventh minute of the recording in which Zehetmair gives Bach’s repeated notes the character of Vivaldi’s barking dog in The Four Seasons, and there is plenty of this kind of wizardry to be relished throughout.

There are too many competitors to name in this repertoire, but as far as I’m concerned of the recent crop Christian Tetzlaff on the Ondine label (review) is hard to beat. I had hoped to be able to make an easy choice between these two, but they are such entirely different beasts that it becomes impossible to pick a winner. Tetzlaff is by comparison recorded in a far more intimate acoustic than the St Gerold space, which exerts an almost orchestral effect on the violin sound with the richness of its resonant reflections. Zehetmair makes a more extrovert impression in part as a result of this acoustic immersivity, but his playing is in any case more boundary-seeking than Tetzlaff, who is more precise and intimate while at the same time being no less characterful. Timings are generally though not always shorter from Zehetmair, who is less out to express the lyrical Bach. Compare their Siciliana from BWV 1001, in which Zehetmair often places more weight on the accompanying harmonies than the actual melody, which keeps an ethereal quality when compared to the more singing but still delicately nuanced lines from Tetzlaff.

In the end I shall happily keep both versions. I’ll want Tetzlaff for his poetry, and Zehetmair for his grit and individuality. There are of course truckloads of other fine recordings around, with Rachel Barton Pine (review) and Julia Fischer (review) worthy of consideration, and representatives of previous generations such as Itzhak Perlman (review) all interesting in their own ways. This 2 CD set is nicely presented in a slimline cardboard case and each disc with its own sturdy cardboard sleeve, with a nicely illustrated booklet with notes by Peter Gülke in German and English.

Dominy Clements

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