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Q&A with Christian Tetzlaff
On September 19, 2014, Christian Tetzlaff opens the 92nd Street Y 2014/15 concert season with a performance of the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas—one of the monuments of Western music.
While the six individual sonatas and partitas are regularly performed, Christian Tetzlaff is one of only a few artists who present the complete cycle as in a single epic program. In the following Q&A with 92Y, he discusses his thoughts and experience with Bach and the cycle.
To watch a video version, click on the Video and Audio tab.
Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi
To begin, one hears these Sonatas and Partitas individually in recitals, yet you are choosing the monumental task of performing all six in one afternoon. Why take such a daunting approach?
If you look at it on paper, you think, “Oh my God, more than two hours of one composer on one instrument.” But playing them all together is actually really rewarding for everyone.
It’s very simple: these six pieces are a cycle, a very clearly indicated cycle. I know of no example from that time where such a large structure was built. There are the Rosary Sonatas by Biber but they follow the text of the Bible so there is an outside guide. The Bach Sonatas and Partitas function on a purely musical basis. It’s a structure of 130 minutes, and they are interconnected in many ways. We can discuss some of those interconnections later, but you can only appreciate them when you hear them all together.
What are the origins of the works? Why did Bach compose them, and for whom?
As far as I can tell, these sonatas and partitas have no real reason for being. Certainly they wouldn’t have had any function in Baroque-era concert life, like the Brandenberg Concertos or other Bach concertos, which would be performed with the orchestra in Cöthen. And there doesn’t seem to be any dedication. In my opinion, this is something Bach composed for himself; it’s something that he wanted to write, that he had to write—they were like a personal prayer book.
By all reports from friends and family, Bach was a very good violin player, so I think he picked the violin for these really intense and beautiful pieces because the violin has a quality in melodic playing that the keyboard cannot reach just by the quality of its sound. Yet his students reported that he also often played pieces out of these sonatas on the keyboard because they were obviously so close to his heart.
When did you start performing them, and have there been any particular influences on your interpretations?
The first one I learned was the Sonata No. 2 when I was 12, and I don’t think I had ever heard it before. I then learned all the others by the time I was 18, except for the Partita No. 1; I only learned that when I was 28.
Sir Roger Norrington
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
The influences on my Bach performances did not come from any violinists, and they came long before I even started playing Bach. In our home we listened to Bach’s cantatas as long as I could remember. And this was a time when performance practices were becoming much more exciting. People like Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Sir Roger Norrington were discovering the wildness and beauty of different instrumentations and the exuberant phrases and meaning of this music. They showed how Bach would use every possible means to express his texts; one cantata would have just a recorder and theorbo [a long-necked lute with a bass range—ed.], while another would have lots of brass. Whatever the text would suggest, he would go for it wildly.
Another very important point that I learned from the cantatas is his phrasing, which has really been lost. We must never forget that Bach’s music is really all about singing and speaking, even if we’re playing the violin. He very carefully indicates all this in his perfect manuscript writing, where he has carefully marked every phrasing. You know when to speak, and you know when to really sing, because there is quite a difference.
So has the authentic performance movement had an impact on you?
Yes, I listen to a lot of those recordings. I play a modern fiddle, and I don’t put complete research into everything I do, but I know what has been written at that time, and violin playing has suffered a sad loss over the centuries. If you read something like Geminiani’s treatise on the violin, he describes 14 different kinds of vibrato, one for anger, one for love, one for desperation, and yet so many of us just sit there and vibrate the one way we do best to make it sound good. To rediscover this variety and wildness of playing is the best thing about playing these pieces.
Turning to the music itself, you mentioned the interconnectedness of the works. Can you give some examples that will help the listener pull the whole cycle together?
The simplest way is to refer to the violin itself. What does Bach start with? He starts with the lowest string of the instrument, the G string for the Sonata No. 1 in G minor. Then the last piece starts high up on the highest string, the E string for the Partita No. 3 in E major, which is the brightest key on the violin and always surprises me when I play. So Bach travels the full range of the violin completely, both physically and in its sound—it’s about as far as you can go in contrast.
Of course, Bach explores the violin’s range in other ways. In the set you will find every style of violin playing and every technical device known at the time; the diversity is amazing. The complete violin performance language of that time is used within these six works. But on a much deeper level, you can see the progression of keys, starting with G minor, then progressing to B minor, then A minor, D minor and culminating in the Chaconne that closes the Partita No 2. It’s like a great drama; the tension mounts through the cycle, building to this big climax.
So the entire cycle turns on the Chaconne?
Tetzlaff’s most recent
recording of the Sonatas
& Partitas, from 2005
for Hänssler Classics
Yes, it is such a devastating piece of music. It is thirteen minutes long and connected to the other movements in the partita, and yet it towers above everything else. And then after such music—where could one possibly go? Even Bach doesn’t know. In his manuscript, the Chaconne stops and then the next sonata—which is supposed to be in C major—starts directly on the next line in the same register, same rhythm, same tempo, and even by the fifth measure, in the same key—D minor.
For most of the first movement of the sonata, it’s as if Bach is pleading, “How can I get away from the Chaconne?” The first four cadenzas are even in G minor, the key of the first sonata. It’s like we’re in limbo, a no-man’s land. Only at the very end is there a little phrase that quotes the Chaconne one last time, but like a deus ex machina, that phrase suddenly turns everything around, and from then on we are strictly in a joyful C major for the rest of the sonata.
So then we’re free of the Chaconne?
Yes we’re free. The end of the cycle is really unbelievable because after going through all this emotion of the first works, the torment of the Chaconne and the profound joy of the C-major Sonata No. 3, the E-major Partita No. 3 is only about smiling and dancing. The movements get shorter and shorter—the last one is only 1½ minutes—and we go dancing away as the cycle ends. I find this ending so unbelievable, and it only can be fully understood within the whole set of the cycle.
Yet this performance must be tough on you. It’s a musical marathon.
Naturally it is a big challenge physically and mentally to do this. But I always feel it’s worth it when I’m done. And I take into account the fact that there will be problems in the performance that would not have happened if I had performed them one at a time, but as they say, no pain, no gain.
As we take our break, what will you do?
I’ll eat cookies and drink some coffee. It helps me get some calories back.
You’ve also undoubtedly built some endurance, since you’ve been performing the complete Sonatas and Partitas as a cycle for at least 15 years, with your first recording in 1995. Has your interpretation changed at all?
By playing them as often as I have in this way, I have developed a greater sense of freedom and confidence. I’m not afraid of losing myself if I make some spontaneous decisions to do something differently. As long as I can stay in the proper frame of mind and feel secure, then I can take more risks and feel more liberated in my playing.
Tetzlaff with his modern-day
Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi
You mentioned that you play a modern instrument. Isn’t at a bit unusual for a player of your stature?
Maybe, but I’ve had it for ten years, and I like it. The maker is Stefan-Peter Greiner, and the strings are by a manufacturer in Vienna. It’s much cheaper than a Stradivarius or a Guarneri, and it sounds good, so I think I’ve got a good deal!
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