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  41:3 (01-02 /2018)
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Reviewer: Huntley Dent

Some will be tempted to greet Christian Tetzlaff’s third recording of Bach’s Solo Sonatas and Partitas with a frown, muttering to themselves, “He’d better have a good reason for this.” The new set, recorded in a Bremen concert hall in October 2016, follows upon the first one made for Virgin in 1993 and the second for Hänssler in 2007. Whether or not you consider Tetzlaff a superstar, he holds a prominent place among current violinists for his deep seriousness and musical imagination—besides Alfred Brendel, he’s the only German or Austrian musician I can recall to be given a worshipful New Yorker profile (August 27, 2012, under the title “String Theorist”—available online).

Music attracts devotees, but in the case of Bach’s solo violin works, devotion is frequently meant in the religious sense—these are creations from a higher power. In his review of Tetzlaff’s first set Robert Maxham says, “I hailed Tetzlaff as ‘an anointed reader of Holy Writ’ (the assumption being that Bach’s works for solo violin constitute a sort of violinistic Bible).” (Fanfare 32:2) To performers and listeners alike, the six Sonatas and Partitas are to be appreciated over a lifetime, so it might need no defense for Tetzlaff to keep returning to them—what famous violinist wouldn’t do the same if given the opportunity?

In a lengthy personal note Tetzlaff seems to undercut the rationale for a remake: “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 in this music.” The last phrase turns out, in fact, to be the prime virtue of these performances. From the opening Adagio of Sonata No. 1, you’re aware of how naturally Tetzlaff plays, in the sense that there’s a seamless flow of feeling, not to mention beautiful tone. This violinist doesn’t view Bach abstractly. Far more than a series of elaborations on Baroque dances, Tetzlaff’s Sonatas and Partitas are emotionally colored, perhaps not to the extent of Sergey Khachatryan’s ultra-Romanticism (Naïve) but definitely not “purist,” either. That term takes a flattering view of literalism and an absence of interpretative ideas.

Tetzlaff has an abundance of ideas, beginning with his notion that for Bach personally, these works constitute “a clear personal journey … first into the darkness with the first four pieces in minor and with the culmination in the Chaconne, which is horrifying in some passages, and then a journey back into acceptance, great joy, and dancing.” Tetzlaff says considerably more in the same vein, although the listener doesn’t have to agree with him in order to enjoy some undoubtedly masterful playing. In terms of technique, as you’d expect from many previous Tetzlaff recordings, there’s an emphasis on tonal variety and freedom of choice. Rejecting what he calls “sublime control,” he applies vibrato according to his own expressive impulse, at times plays extremely softly and loudly, and pushes fast tempos to their limit, as in the second Double of Sonata No. 1. Anyone who considers taking such liberties to be interventionist isn’t likely to be happy.

On the present scene, it seems to me, there are a handful of violinists with big enough personalities to turn the Sonatas and Partitas into a kaleidoscope of color, mood, dramatic contrasts, and technical dazzle. Khachatryan, Gidon Kremer, and Gil Shaham are the ones that come to mind, and Tetzlaff joins them here. The Fugue in Sonata No. 1 is a wonderful display of how to find musical meaning behind the counterpoint, and the fact that Tetzlaff sounds so effortless clears the way for paying attention to what he wants to express. Also, his idea about the minor-key works being dark or “horrifying” isn’t pressed too far in his playing. Without reading the program note, I doubt you’d notice a divagation into darkness. Slow movements such as the Grave in Sonata No. 2 may be given a melancholy cast, but there’s also delicacy and finesse—the music isn’t tarred with a single brush. The Chaconne in D Minor (which Tetzlaff characterizes as a “funerary lament”) is played for spontaneity and detailed phrase-shaping rather than forward momentum or technical bravura. Where an ebullient flashiness is desirable, as in the Preludio of Partita No. 3, Tetzlaff cuts loose to exciting effect.

As often happens when this artist digs into a score, listening requires focus and concentration to capture everything he’s doing. As a result, you may find yourself unable to sit through more than one or two pieces at a time—not a drawback for me, since I don’t like the occasional practice, which was a favorite of Kremer’s, of playing all six works in a marathon recital. The artist bio included here describes a Tetzlaff recital as “an existential experience for interpreter and audience alike,” implying that he presides over a grueling ordeal. In reality these are beautiful readings, captured in very fine recorded sound, that balance depth of interpretation with the inherent joy of Bach’s singular masterpieces.

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