Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Bach: Sonatas and Partitas - Tomás Cotik treads a thoughtful, intelligent middle way when approach these icons of the violin repertoire

Johann Sebastian Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin; Tomás Cotik; Centaur
Johann Sebastian Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin; Tomás Cotik; Centaur
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 April 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A new account of Bach's great solo violin works treads a thoughtful way through the various interpretative possibilities

Johann Sebastian Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin are works which every violinist needs to approach. On this new disc, from Centaur, violinist Tomás Cotik brings has some thoughtful solutions to the questions which every performer must answer about these works.

The tradition of virtuoso, polyphonic writing for the violin grew in Germany in the 17th century with Biber, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, and the composers of the Dresden school – Johann Jakob Walther and Johann Paul von Westhoff. This was repertoire that Bach would have known and it is thought that he would have encountered Westhoff in Weimar where Westhoff was court musician from 1699 to his death on 1705. Whilst little in the way of manuscript evidence for Bach's early instrumental works survives, there are hints that the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin might have their origins in works written during Bach's Weimar period (1708-1717). The main manuscript that we have dates from around 1720 during his time in Cöthen (1717-1723), and the manuscript was copied by Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach.

Bach's aim in the works is to write satisfying polyphonic music using an instrument mainly renowned for producing a single melodic line. He does so brilliantly, and part of this brilliance is the way Bach is able to imply the harmonic development with just a few notes. The works alternate Sonatas and Partitas, the sonatas being four movement sonatas da chiesa (slow-fast-slow-fast), each with a fugue for the second movement, whilst the partitas are suites of dance movements.

When playing the works, a performer needs to make a considerable number of decisions, about the type of instrument and strings, the type of bow, the role of ornamentation, articulation and bowing, not to mention speed and the relationship of the partitas to dance music.

Tomás Cotik (Photo: So-Min Kang Photograpy)
Tomás Cotik (Photo: So-Min Kang Photograpy)
And then there is the question of the order? Do you play them in the published one, or is there some sort of fundamental logic to the pieces. Some performers think so, and when I talked to Kyung Wha Chung about playing them [see my interview with her from 2017] she explained how her thinking had changed and how her ordering of them was inspired by Bach's Lutheranism. There have been suggestions that the Chaconne from Partita No. 2 might be a memorial to Bach's first wife Maria Barbara Bach, who died in 1720, with explorations of it in the context of Lutheran chorales.

We have no idea for whom the works were written, perhaps one of the violinists at the Dresden court, or the leader of the court capelle in Cöthen.
Which means we have no idea what sort of performance was intended. Certainly not one where all six were played at once, and whilst a secular setting is very likely there is the possibility of a sacred one (Biber's Rosary Sonatas of 1676 were written for religious meditations). Whilst the court at Cöthen was Calvinist, so no music was used, Bach attended a Lutheran congregation in Cöthen and of course, the Dresden court was Roman Catholic

The result is that interpretations can vary from the genuinely romantic right through to those which come directly out of 17th and early 18th century violin playing treatises.

For this new disc violinist Tomás Cotik has clearly thought greatly about the music and style of the performance and has produced a series of articles for The Strad, talking about his approach to the works. Cotik's approach might be described as intelligently mixed. He normally plays a modern violin and has wisely kept this instrument but uses modern strings which are somewhat softer in tone than usual, and combines this with a period bow. He similarly approaches articulation and vibrato with sensible eye, and his use of vibrato is relatively sparing for a modern performance, using it as an ornament rather than applied liberally all over.

The result is a very clean, direct and very lean sound, often quite intense, with a strong linear quality. This gives an expressive, muscular feel to his playing, which can be emphasised by the strenuous quality to some of the bigger string crossing passages. But by contrast, much of the passage-work is fluently shaped into the melodic line, and overall he brings a sense of the movements' architecture, keeping the music flowing without a tendency to stop too long to enjoy the scenery. So in the great Chaconne from Partita No. 2, we have a real feel for the movement's larger scale rather than moving from moment to moment, whilst the dance movements are often quite clearly that with a feel of the underlying dance rhythms.

Cotik is not trying to make the music mean something in the extra-musical sense, but that does not preclude expressivity and emotion. If you are interested in Bach's works for solo violin but uncertain which path to pick through the mass of different interpretations, than Cotik's intelligent middle way is a good place to start. A performance from a modern violinist who has clearly read the literature and thought about each of the decisions in context. That makes the performance sound rather dry, it is not. Cotik's virtue here is to be able to be expressive within his chosen medium



Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1739) - Sonatas and partitas for solo violin
Tomás Cotik (violin)
Recorded at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, USA in 2019
CENTAUR CRC 3755/3756 2CDs [57.43, 60.50]

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