“Hearing all six of these works in [a single performance] is a kind of classical music nirvana.”—The New York Times

The masterful Christian Tetzlaff opens the 92Y Concert season with one of the monuments of Western music—the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.

While the six individual works are a staple of the violin recital repertoire, Mr. Tetzlaff is one of only a few who perform the full cycle in a single setting—a marathon achievement. The last time Mr. Tetzlaff did this in New York, The New York Times hailed him as “a bold artist with an instinctive feeling for the wild side in music.” (Click the Video & Audio tab above to watch an excerpt from the performance and to watch an video interview with him about the work).

Celebrate the opening of the 92Y concert season with this exceptional musical journey—and join us for a complimentary glass of champagne at intermission!

Christian Tetzlaff, violin

Complete Bach Sonatas & Partitas for solo violin

BACH: Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
BACH: Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002
BACH: Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003
BACH: Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
BACH: Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005
BACH: Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006

This concert is approximately 3 hours long, including an extended intermission.


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Christian Tetzlaff plays the Largo and Allegro assai from Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, from his Oct 25, 2009 performance of the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas

Christian Tetzlaff discusses the Bach Sonatas and Partitas in a 2009 interview with 92Y

On the Blog

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.

Christian Tetzlaff.
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
Greiner violin.
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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Explore the Music

(Click the names below to expand info.)

Notes on the Program

by Luke Howard
(From Oct 25, 2009, program book)

In his Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006, Johann Sebastian Bach (born Eisenach, March 21, 1685; died Leipzig; July 28, 1750) extracted more intricate polyphony from a solo string instrument, with more artistry and greater technical proficiency, than any other composer before or since. And there were, indeed, numerous composers of the time who tried their hand at writing for violin “without bass accompaniment,” including Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705) and Georg Pisendel (1687-1755). But Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas stand today as masterpieces of Baroque musical literature, and they are now universally acknowledged as pinnacles of the solo string repertory.

The Sonatas and Partitas are experimental in that they attempt to create the illusion of harmony and counterpoint using an instrument fashioned primarily for melody. What distinguishes Bach’s works from earlier composers’ attempts is that they are not merely experiments, exercises or virtuoso showpieces. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas are, undeniably, works of unparalleled expressive power in which the technical difficulties are directed to an ultimately musical purpose.

Bach’s manuscript copy of the violin suites dates from 1720. They may have been composed some years earlier, but they are stylistically consistent with the music he wrote as court composer in Cöthen, a position he assumed in 1717. It was during this period that Bach also produced some of his other great masterworks of instrumental composition, including the six Brandenburg Concertos and the two volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

By the time these solo violin works were first published in the early 1800s, musical tastes had changed, and not all listeners were able to recognize their significance. Mendelssohn and Schumann, both of whom revered Bach’s music, produced piano accompaniments for the “unaccompanied” violin works, thinking that audiences would not understand the ingeniously implied harmony and polyphony without explicit help. Even some of the great violin virtuosi, including Joseph Joachim, occasionally failed to convince listeners and critics of the works’ greatness. It remained for Brahms, who perhaps understood Bach’s music better than any other musician, to recognize their intrinsic value. Writing to Clara Schumann about the famous Chaconne from the Partita No. 2, Brahms enthused, “On one system, for a small instrument, the man wrote an entire world of the most profound thoughts and powerful sentiments.”

Although these works push the limits of violin technique, they are extraordinarily well-suited to the instrument. Here, as in the solo cello suites, Bach sought to explore a string instrument’s musical potential on its own terms, instead of pressing it to mimic some other instrument or ensemble. While there are indeed passages that seem derived from organ textures, or lend themselves easily to transcription for orchestra, the violin writing in these suites is unfailingly idiomatic.

In fact, the concentrated genius of these solo violin works is thrown into high relief when they are compared directly with Bach’s own transcriptions. Bach made organ and lute arrangements, for example, of the Fuga from the Sonata No. 2, and he rescored the Preludio from the Partita No. 3 for organ and orchestra in the cantata, “Wir danken dir, Gott” (“We Thank You, God”)(BWV 29). (It was this movement that became widely popular in the late 20th century through Walter Carlos’ synthesized recording on the groundbreaking 1968 album Switched-On Bach.) These more richly scored transcriptions, impressive in their own right, highlight the remarkable intensity of invention and musical brilliance manifest when the same music is played on just four strings.

The titles Bach chose for these Sonatas and Partitas suggest that his initial point of reference was the small chamber ensemble. The Sonatas, with their alternation of slow and fast movements, are modeled on the baroque sonata da chiesa, which was traditionally conceived for two treble-range instruments (usually violins) and continuo. The Partitas, on the other hand, present a series of contrasting movements in the style of a Baroque dance suite, which also has its origins in the chamber orchestra. In broad terms, then, the Sonatas are abstract music, while the Partitas are derived from functional music.

Several features of the Sonatas and Partitas suggest that Bach intended them as a single, unified cycle and not just a set of six relatively independent suites. Given the formal and structural distinctions between the two genres, Bach’s decision to alternate sonatas and partitas rather than group them together is an unusual one. The first Sonata is also the most conservative of the set while the last Partita is the most “modern,” hinting at an overarching orderliness so characteristic of Bach. Further evidence is found in the methodical key relationships between the suites. The tonic pitch of the first Sonata (in G minor) moves up two whole steps to B minor for the first Partita, then down a whole step to A minor for the second Sonata. The pattern of “up two, down one” is then reversed for the final three suites, with the D minor of the second Partita moving down a whole step to C major for the third Sonata, then up two whole steps to E major for the final Partita.

In the Partitas, all movements remain in the same key, but each of the Sonatas includes a single movement in a contrasting key, expanding the tonal palette of the entire cycle in a significant way. Ultimately, each key of the German eight-letter musical scale is represented in the cycle. (In English, seven letters—“A” through “G”—are used to represent the notes of the musical scale, but in early German, eight letters were used: B-flat was referred to as “B” and B-natural as “H.”) What’s more, only those eight letters are used; except for B-flat, there are no chromatically- altered keys in this structure. As in the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach’s organizational method in this cycle might not be immediately obvious, but it is meticulous and scrupulously consistent.

The Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 (17 minutes), opens with an Adagio that functions as a prelude not only to the four-voiced fugue that follows but also to the entire cycle. Indeed, in each of the Sonatas, the opening pair of movements is cast in the “prelude-and-fugue” arrangement already so familiar from Bach’s keyboard compositions. For the third movement, Bach writes a calming Siciliana, and the Sonata’s concluding Presto so impressed Brahms that he made his own arrangement for piano. (image: 1720 Autograph of Sonata No. 1, I. Adagio)

Though Bach gave Italian titles to the movements in the Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002 (26 minutes), he is really drawing on the French Baroque dance suite for inspiration, employing three traditional dance types: the allemande, courante and sarabande. But in place of the expected gigue, Bach gives a bourée at the conclusion. Each of the four movements is followed by its own “double,” a variation derived from either a melodic or harmonic feature of the original movement, producing (in effect) two related allemandes followed by two courantes, then two sarabandes and two bourées. A single unifying theme ingeniously weaves itself throughout the entire suite, only revealing itself fully in the final movement.

The solemn opening of the Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 (23 minutes), leads into an extraordinary fugue based on an eight-note theme. Bach’s contemporary Johann Mattheson remarked that the marvel of this fugue is how the composer is able to construct such an expansive contrapuntal edifice from a rather ordinary theme while making it seem completely natural “and without extraordinary elongation.” The ensuing Andante is as gentle as the opening Grave, and the restless Allegro is marked by repeated phrases that create echo-like effects throughout the movement.

The Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (29 minutes), uses the same dance movements as the first Partita, but reverts to the traditional gigue in place of the bourée. Though the movements are related motivically, they retain their characteristic individual qualities. They are also simply a prelude to the celebrated Chaconne that follows.

This Chaconne is much more serious and dramatic than the preceding dances, and is as long as the other four movements combined, making it on the one hand a somewhat incongruous finale to the dance suite, but on the other, a stunning and judiciously-placed fulcrum around which the whole cycle turns. Generically, a chaconne is a “continuous variation” form, in which a simple bass line or harmonic progression is developed into an unbroken stream of varied iterations. It does not belong to the tradition of the sonata da chiesa nor is it a customary movement in a Baroque dance suite. This Chaconne, then, stands out as an extraordinary musical jewel, distinct in form and style from the music that surrounds it, and elaborately framed by the rest of the cycle.

Chord voicing and harmonic motion indicate that Bach was likely imagining an organ texture when he wrote the Adagio and Fuga movements of the Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 (23 minutes). The fugue, which is the longest in this cycle, is based on a popular chorale melody, “Komm, heiliger Geist” (“Come, Holy Ghost”), that Bach used in several other compositions as well. The two short movements that follow are merely a coda, an interlude before the concluding Partita.

The Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 (18 minutes), begins not with the usual allemande, but with a sprightly Preludio, suggesting that Bach was more inclined to mix genres and overturn expectations in this, the most “modern” and cheerful of the six suites in the cycle. This Preludio is followed by the suite’s only slow movement, the Loure. Then a series of short dances press enthusiastically toward the concluding Gigue, which acts as a celebratory ribbon that wraps up the entire cycle.

© 2009, 2014 Luke Howard

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Artist Bio

Christian Tetzlaff, violin

As an artist known for his musical integrity, technical assurance and intelligent, compelling interpretations, Christian Tetzlaff is internationally recognized as one of the most important violinists performing today.

From the outset of his career, Mr. Tetzlaff has performed and recorded a broad spectrum of the repertoire, ranging from Bach, through Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Brahms to 20th-century concertos by Bartók, Berg and Shostakovich and world premieres of contemporary works. Also a dedicated chamber musician, he frequently collaborates with distinguished artists, and he is the founder of the Tetzlaff Quartet, which he formed in 1994 with violinist Elisabeth Kufferath, violist Hanna Weinmeister and his sister, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff.

Mr. Tetzlaff has established close artistic partnerships with many most of the world's leading orchestras and has appeared in recital in the foremost venues. Highlights of his 2013/14 season in North America included appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis and National symphonies; recitals with Lars Vogt in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Montreal and Quebec City; and two appearances at Carnegie Hall—with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and with the Tetzlaff Quartet. During the 2011/12 season Mr. Tetzlaff was a Carnegie Hall Perspectives artist. In Europe this past season he returned to the Vienna and Munich philharmonics and toured with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra.

Mr. Tetzlaff's highly regarded recordings include solo works, chamber music and concertos ranging from Haydn to Bartok. His latest recordings include Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Vienna Philharmonic led by Pierre Boulez for Deutsche Grammophon; the Schumann and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos with Frankfurt Radio Orchestra and Paavo Järvi for Edel Classics; Jorg Widmann’s Violin Concerto, written for Mr. Tetzlaff, with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Harding for Ondine; and Schönberg’s String Quartet No. 1 and Sibelius’s Quartet op. 56 with the Tetzlaff Quartet on the AVI label.

Christian Tetzlaff currently performs on a violin modeled after a Guarneri del Gesu made by the German violin maker, Peter Greiner. In honor of his artistic achievements, Musical America named Mr. Tetzlaff "Instrumentalist of the Year" in 2005. His website is christiantetzlaff.com.

Photo: Giorga Bertazzi

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Details & Ordering

  • Opening Night 2014—Tetzlaff Plays Bach

    Date: Thu, Sep 18, 2014, 7 pm

    Location: Lexington Avenue at 92nd St

    Venue: Kaufmann Concert Hall

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