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Bach: Sonatas & Partitas - Christian Tetzlaff

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Critic Wolfgang Schreiber writes: "Bach's six great works for solo violin are the most profound example of any virtuoso music. Christian Tetzlaff presents them here for a second time – more consciously thought-through, more incisively formulated. Tetzlaff, born in Hamburg in 1966 and trained in Lübeck and Cincinnati, has long counted as one of the most intelligent and multi-facetted classical artists of our day. He tours the world with the greatest orchestras and is also passionately engaged with chamber music; he has distinguished himself fighting the cause of 20th-century music. Tetzlaff plays Bach's legendary dance movements with an exemplary precision and variety of "speaking" articulation, as well as captivating conviction."

Johann Sebastian Bach is definitely a composer with whom I make an effort to grow. I have played these pieces a lot, so that I now feel freer and believe that I perhaps have also become somewhat closer to them. 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. And I have increasingly rid myself of the conventions that prevailed when I played it for the first time. They include themes like a uniform vibrato for almost all the notes (which of course deprives one of the vibrato’s expressive power in important passages). Or nonsensical habits like the division of four-part chords into 2+2 voices for a “controlled organisation” – with the consequence that the conversation involving four independent voices cannot be heard and experienced, and everything sounds like mere fiddling. The various volume levels also have to correspond to the content – which also means extreme piano and fortissimo in some passages – instead of sublime control!We know from the Bach pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola that the six Sonatas and Partitas meant so much to Bach that he often played them for himself on the harpsichord, in the form of a keyboard version with full harmonies. I believe that this contains a truth. These pieces go beyond gigantic works like The Well-Tempered Clavier or The Musical Offering inasmuch as a clear personal journey is described: 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.

I see the six Sonatas and Partitas as a cycle on each individual level: on the purely formal level it is a cycle beginning on the G string in G minor and ending on the E string in E major, on the violin’s lowest and highest strings. It is also a cycle that grows during the course of the three sonatas, in matters of length but also deriving from the significance of the Fugues. For me the most important level is situated inside: the G minor Sonata conveys something that is great and serious but not despondent. The A minor second Sonata is a genuine Passion composition, already with its Grave first movement. The accumulation of tritone parallels and figures that weep and sigh shows that this Sonata, if it were a Cantata, would deal with the themes of sin, death, and danger. I associate the first movement with the depiction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: Why have I been left alone? Why is nobody now able to standby my side? This of course is only an association. The Chaconne’s length, dramatic quality, and movement form make it a complete exception within the cycle. For me it is the dark magnetic pole of the first four pieces. A tripartite form – a long first part, a somewhat shorter major part, an even shorter part again in D minor – is put together in accordance with the Golden Section. The major part is of an incredibly debilitating, naive beauty, a sarabande rhythm, a dance. Then clear trumpet figures join in, as if a rescue party might be drawing near. In what follows there are gigantic arpeggios in which the biggest sound that one can produce on the violin is developed. And then there is a cut, and things continue back to the initial D minor, this time, however, with even less hope. For me it is doubtless the case that what is involved here is not “tonally moving forms” but a copy of a dramatic human occurrence or a Passion composition – or almost of an entire Cantata with various sections of text dealing with sin, punishment, and death.

For me the content of the Chaconne is a funerary lament – or fear of death or in some passages yearning for death. I believe that it also cannot be dismissed out of hand that a cycle concluded by Bach in 1720 might contain an epitaph for his first wife Maria Barbara, who died during that year. According to many documents known to us, their marriage, which, as we know, produced fantastic children, must have been a very close relationship. At the time Bach came home from avery short journey on official business to learn that his wife was already lying in her grave. This very certainly opened deep wounds. If this experience found its way into the music, then it would also explain why in a cycle for violin solo a horrifying monument suddenly takes shape in a Partita, which normally has short movements.

In cyclical respects, at this point, after the Chaconne, one has the option of calling it quits or working oneself out of this hole. And Bach demonstrates exemplarily –even calligraphically – how this is to be done: in the autograph he begins writing the next Sonata, the C major Sonata, right on the same page, in the middle, though squeezed in between, as the “Sonata No. 3.” It commences in the same tempo, the same rhythm, the same register – which means that it continues practically without a break. In the fifth measure it leads directly back to D minor. The emergence from the hole thus does not work at all on the first try; C major does not occur on the first beat in this movement. But G minor is cited as the key of the first Sonata in the first cadence, and figurations from the A minor Sonata are found. The conclusion of this first movement after the Chaconne is an exact quotation of the figuration from the conclusion of the Chaconne – but now redirected toward hopefulness. The links to the D minor Partita and the Chaconne are thus also apparent here.The idea of the cycle is essential to the understanding not only of the music but also of this inner journey into the depths and despair and the attempt there after to state in an almost religious manner: But, nonetheless, it is good or right, and I must accept life as it is. And Bach now does indeed grope toward major, in an almost moving way. How he repeatedly avoids C major, allowing cadences that really should lead to C major, but then repeatedly breaks them off. For a very long time he holds back the genuine cadence to C major. But then he pulls it off in the Fugue! And pulls it off with a might generating an exact counterpart of the Chaconne to stand with it. Many regard the theme at the beginning as a quotation of “Veni creator spiritus,” which would make a lot of sense in this emotional context. The idea that one canbe rescued from a state of distress perhaps by support from on high. For my part, as a non-religious person, I might describe this in such a way that in states of distress one can find the inner strength to liberate oneself again. Whether it is because of how at this moment we interact with other persons orbecause of what we do or what we have just learned during a stroll.

After the grand jubilant Fugue and a reflective slow movement, things get really virtuosic in the last movement of the C major Sonata, a merry movement, Italian, jaunty, mirthful. The Preludio of the E major Partita follows, the open strings are used wildly, and then a series of dance movements unfolds, some of them meditative, some of them mirthful, and with each movement a little shorter than the one before it. At the conclusion almost nothing is left over. Bach thus did not find it necessary to say: Just look at all that I have done. Johann Sebastian Bach manifests himself very personally in this cycle. He signs many important passages by using the letters b-a-c-h, one after the other, in any case deliberately indicating his name because he takes the extra step of modifying the parallel passages so that they always end with his name. At the end of the slow movement of the C major sonata he does this in a very important passage while very slowly uttering his name.He introduces other elements of content by way of the system of tone letters in which each letter of his name or, for example, each letter of his wife’s name has a number: B is 2, A is 1, and so on, and then he writes Johann Sebastian or Johann Sebastian Bach in tone letters several times at the ends of movements. But this is not new with him. These references beyond the musical sphere also have a cabbalistic quality. Most listeners of course do not immediately recognize them. He composes the music in this manner because for him it heightens the significance of the text. What actually can be heard and the mystical element blend together very much in this cycle. The emotional content of this cycle is also reflected in the choice of the instrument: in its sound the violin is a somewhat more personal instrument than the harpsichord. It is somewhat more malleable, sensitive, smaller, can sound entirely lost, but can also open itself quite powerfully. For me the idea suggests itself that this music is Bach’s personal little prayer book. And the violin is very well suited for this.

Bach himself was a very good violinist, and he surely found it appealing to do something that nobody before him had done in just this way – and also to show: I can write every form, Italian Sonata, Partita, I can write all three Partitas in such away that they have completely different movement forms. The idea of entertaining potential and completeness in this work is overwhelming. For this reason playing the six Sonatas as a cycle is also such a marvelous experience. And something else is remarkable: on the title page Bach wrote “Sei Solo,” which is normally translated as “Six Solos for Violin.” But his Italian was certainly not so bad that he did not know that the work then would have to be titled “Sei Soli.” But the title reads “Sei Solo,” which, translated literally, means “You are alone.” This is surely a concept. Perhaps it lends support to my theory that in this work he laments the death of his wife and says to himself: You are now alone. Moreover, a violinist is of course “alone” in a different way than a keyboard player, who plays everything with two hands and fills things up harmonically. This idea of loneliness is employed extraordinarily effectively in the music. And what he writes, how it sounds and is meaningful in itself, is something, I think, that can beachieved in this way only on the violin.

A further little aspect pertaining to the cyclical form and the personality of the work: in his very accurate clean copy of 1720 Bach very deliberately designed the P for each of the Partitas. For the first Partita he clearly writes a P. For the second Partita he forms the P with a not very clearly distinguishable J and over it as a curved element an S. The P for the third Partita is clearly formed by a J and an S over it, so that one is just able to read “Partita.” But what one actually should read is “Johann Sebastian.” For me what he is saying the whole time in this cycle is: Just look at me. That is me myself! For us violinists it is so wonderful that this manuscript is a copy for playing, a part written out with slurs. That is very rare in the Baroque. From start to finish the notes are written as if with bowing markings. And not the bowings with which itmight be the easiest to play the work; they follow the semantics and show how the conversation develops. In the long Chaconne that is vital. He always indicates where the bar accents fall, and they are often not on the first beat. This offers us a new freedom to feel: I have been included in Bach’s verbal rhythm, and that allows me also to say these things excessively. One truly does not have to treat this music carefully or magnificently, for these are all very profound human utterances. But then when he gets down to business, one can use one’s violin fora genuine fortissimo and pianissimo. What Bach expresses with this music states that what is experienced is always represented on a universal level. The human condition means precisely that these horrible things happen to all of us. Even on the joyful pages of the last pieces he does not spread out his grief and joy but instead invites us to understand this as an essential trait of human existence. In the Gigue at the very conclusion, hardly longer than a minute, Bach says: Now we are all human beings again and will attempt to enjoy this as much as possible.

Christian Tetzlaff: Thoughts on J. S. Bach’s “Sei Solo”

Transcribed by Friederike Westerhaus

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