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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata no. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 [14:13]
Partita no. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002 [23:34]
Sonata no. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003 [19:52]
Partita no. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 [24:42]
Sonata no. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005 [19:08]
Partita no. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 [16:57]
Tomás Cotik (violin)
rec. 2019, Portland State University, Portland, USA
CENTAUR CRC3755/6 [57:43 + 60:50]

In the English-speaking world, there are a number of Shakespearian theatre companies that attempt to perform the Bard’s works in under two hours, with little theatrical lighting or scenery. The goal is to recreate the exact conditions of the original performances, with primary sources of the Elizabethan era being used as a template for production. Performances are fast-paced, often raucous in their humor; this works very well for comedy, or for some of the histories. When it comes to the tragedies like King Lear or Othello, however, there always seems to be a burning hole in the drama where deeper emotions should reside.

Tomás Cotik’s performance of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin strikes me as the musical equivalent of this theatrical performance style. Tempi are swift, vibrato is selective, there are dramatic swings of the dynamic range. For some movements, this approach works quite well. Cotik possesses an impressive technique that allows him to play with impeccable intonation at rapid speeds on either end of the dynamic spectrum. The Presto of the G Minor Sonata is a perfect example of this, played with just the right amount of fire and abandon.

The slower movements, however, suffer from a lack of introspection. The famous Chaconne is played in a cool 10’55”. Just to provide a comparison, the Baroque violinist Rachel Podger takes 13’33”, while the famous recording by Nathan Milstein takes 13’57”. Even Jascha Heifetz -- who during his lifetime was often accused of being a speed-demon -- clocks in at 12’47”, almost two minutes slower than Cotik. I do not mean to suggest that all performances of the Chaconne must be the very picture of staid Baroque majesty, but the music is allowed little repose here. Cotik hurries from one episode to another, with little of the sense of measured trajectory that one finds in the best performances of the piece. Cotik may have in mind the confused contemporary definitions of the speed of the chaconne, with some writers in the 1600s and 1700s discussing the chaconne as a slow piece, while others insisted that it required a faster tempo.

Regardless of the motivation, the tempo in the Chaconne and some of the other slow movements feels rushed, and one often wishes for more breathing room. At times, this feeling of inexorable momentum is created not so much by the overall tempo as by smaller opportunities not taken. For example, the tempo of the Adagio of the G Minor Sonata is not unduly hasty, but Cotik does not rest at cadences. He instead constantly ushers the music forward with almost metronomic regularity. This motion robs the music of its heart, of the emotional core that is so characteristic of Bach. I would rather listen to Fritz Kreisler’s admittedly Romantic account of the same Adagio. The Austrian violinist’s base pulse is not much slower than Cotik’s, but unlike the modern player, Kreisler is willing to smell the roses, underlining the harmonic progressions and allowing the drama to unfold in a more leisurely manner. To return to the Shakespearian metaphor, Cotik is a super-charged Mark Rylance, while Kreisler is John Gielgud.

For those interested in historically informed performance practice: Cotik uses a modern violin, synthetic strings, a baroque bow, and modern tuning (A=440). As mentioned previously, his use of vibrato is fairly sparse, even more so than Baroque violinists such as Rachel Podger and Elizabeth Wallfisch. For more information on his thoughts on these matters, readers can find his 2019 series of articles written for The Strad Magazine in which he discusses these aspects of his performance.

Bach is a composer who divides opinions sharply, and no one recording of any piece of his will make everyone happy. If you are looking for a lithe, efficient set of Sonatas and Partitas, this may be what you are searching for. If you prefer a more rhetorical approach to the music, the young Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, or Rachel Podger would be safer bets.

Richard Masters

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