Arts & Events

Christian Tetzlaff Interprets Bach’s Solo Violin Works

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday December 22, 2017 - 01:33:00 PM

On Sunday evening, December 17, Christian Tetzlaff returned to San Francisco’s Davies Hall to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Appearing under the auspices of San Francisco Symphony, Christian Tetzlaff played the last four of the six Bach works for solo violin. In Tetzlaff’s view, there is a trajectory throughout these six works that moves from darkness and suffering into light and joy. The opening Sonata and its Partita, says Tetzlaff, offer a kind of overture. Omitting these in his recital, Tetzlaff maintains that the basic trajectory can be heard as he plays the second and third sets of sonatas and partitas in numerical order.  

These works for solo violin were composed by Bach between 1717 and 1720 while he was music director at the court of Prince Leopold in Anhalt-Cothen. Most of Bach’s compositions from this period were secular works (such as the Brandenburg Concertos) rather than the church music he later composed in such abundance in Leipzig. Although the Sonatas and partitas for Solo Violin have a reputation for being extremely difficult to play, Christian Tetzlaff maintains that once a violinist understands how these works are based on the inhalation and exhalation of human breathing, they become easier to play as the violinist frees himself of preconceived notions of strict order set in stone.  

Opening his recital with Sonata No. 2 in A minor, Tetzlaff fluently executed the first movement’s large leaps in register. The second movement offers a jaunty fugue complete with a descending chromatic countersubject. The third movement, marked Andante, is one of the most thoroughly lyrical of the entire set, its melody suspended over a pulsating bass line. The final Allegro builds in dramatic intensity and employs an “echo” effect in the Italian style, which Tetzlaff seemingly played with tongue in cheek.  

Partita No. 2 in D minor presents a suite of dances – an allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue, and chaconne. The allemande is leisurely and lithesome, the courante is in the Italian style, the sarabande is plaintive, the gigue is lively. Then comes the magnificent Chaconne, a movement as long as all the other parts put together. In this Chaconne, Bach offers a virtual summation of the solo violin’s expressive capabilities. At the end of this Chaconne, which closes the work, the audience erupted in tumultuous applause. 

After intermission, Christian Tetzlaff returned to perform, first, Sonata No. 3 in C Major, and, last, Partita No. 3 E Major. The opening movement of Sonata No. 3 is a slow Adagio with an almost funereal tread. This is followed by a magnificent fugue in which the opening idea is subjected to almost every conceivable contrapuntal device. Then, magically, the theme is repeated in inverted form, as if Bach wished to show how one mood could be transformed by inversion. Tetzlaff sees this fugue as a crucial turning point in the overall trajectory from darkness and suffering to light and joy. Sure enough, the fugue is followed by a Largo of melodious lyricism. The work then closes with a propulsive Allegro assai that is redolent of joy.  

Partita No. 3 in E Major opens with another of the highlights of Bach’s solo violin works, a magnificent Preludio. Here Tetzlaff adroitly handled the torrents of sixteenth notes, maintaining a spirit of improvisation even if, this being Bach, everything was methodically structured and written out. Next came a soft and gentle Loure, a French dance movement that takes its name from an ancient French bagpipe. Following the Loure came another highlight of the entire set, a sprightly Gavotte en Rondeau, jauntily performed by Christian Tetzlaff. Two contrasting Menuets follow, offering their classical lines. Then comes a brilliant, sunny Bourrée; and the concluding Gigue radiates an unmistakable joy.  

As understood through the lens of Christian Tetzlaff’s interpretation, the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin do indeed seem to progress from darkness and suffering to light and joy. In any case, these are great works that require consummate musicianship from the solo violinist. Christian Tetzlaff presented just such consummate musicianship in this excellent recital.