“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.

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Explore the Music

(Click the names below to expand info.)

A Letter of Welcome

Dear Friends,

For me, everything begins with Bach. Yet, at the same time I consider him to be the pinnacle of musical creation. I’m not alone in this belief; virtually every great classical musician I have ever met feels the same way.

So what better way to open our 2014/15 season than with Bach, especially with Christian Tetzlaff performing Bach’s complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. To hear them all together in a single event is a rare musical journey—The New York Times described it as “classical music nirvana” in its rave review of Mr. Tetzlaff ’s first performance of the cycle at 92Y five years go. The power of this music, performed as a whole, grabs you from the very beginning and never lets you go.

Christian Tetzlaff has made this monumental undertaking one of his signature performances. In an interview with 92Y, he explains that “by playing them as often as I have in this way, I have developed a greater sense of freedom and confidence…. 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.”

Bach’s music permeates our season—in Jennifer Koh’s recital on January 31, when she presents the final part of her Bach and Beyond project, as well as in Marc-André Hamelin’s recital on February 21, when he gives the New York premiere of his Chaconne, inspired, naturally, by Bach’s Chaconne in the Sonata No. 2.

I hope you will join us often during our exciting new season. But for now I welcome you to experience among friends some of the greatest music ever composed—written by a master and played by a master—on our opening night.

Yours,

Hanna Arie-Gaifman
Director, 92Y Tisch Center for the Arts

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Notes on the Program

By Sandra Hyslop

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH

Born in Eisenach, March 31, 1685; died in Leipzig, July 28, 1750

SONATAS AND PARTITAS FOR SOLO VIOLIN, BWV 1001–1006

(Composed in 1703–c. 1720; 136 minutes)

Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 (17 minutes)
Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002 (26 minutes)
Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 (23 minutes)
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (29 minutes)
Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 (23 minutes)
Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 (18 minutes)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s career as a modestly paid church musician—composer, organist, Kapellmeister—would have sufficed to guarantee him a high place of honor in the musical pantheon. However, in addition to his service to God through music (Bach was a devoutly observant Lutheran), he was a professional musician with a growing family to support. In December 1717, at the age of 32, he received an appointment as Kapellmeister to the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Prince Leopold, a 23-yearold man of refined taste, expected weekly concerts and an ample flow of music for special occasions. The Prince was of a strict Calvinist, not Lutheran, religious persuasion. Although he appreciated Bach’s talents as a church musician, the Prince had little need for sacred music.

Bach and his new employer enjoyed a warm relationship, and the cultured young Prince asked Bach to provide secular music for weekly entertainments in his chapel. The four years in the Anhalt-Cöthen court saw the composition of many of Bach’s most well-known secular instrumental works. From that era stem such keyboard music as the Little Keyboard Book for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the first part of the Well-Tempered Clavier, two-part Inventions, three-part Sinfonias, six French Suites, six English Suites, and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. Other instruments, too, benefitted from Bach’s time at Anhalt-Cöthen. While there he wrote the six suites for solo cello, six Brandenburg Concertos, and the set of six works for unaccompanied violin— three sonatas and three partitas, which Bach entitled Sei Solo.

Bach’s Sei Solo (“Six solo,” his term) constituted not only a musical challenge for the violinist, but also an exemplarium of contemporary instrumental styles. Bach had begun composition in 1703 and completed the set during the Cöthen years, dating the score 1720. His fair-hand copy survives as a treasured manuscript in the collection of the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin (and may be seen online at www.bachdigital.de). Contemporary string players, or Bach himself, who was a capable violinist, may have performed the works, and he might well have used the six solos as teaching material for his students; no contemporary mention of this composition is extant. The score was finally published in 1802, and the music itself began to be heard publicly only later in the 19th century, when the influential violinist Joseph Joachim brought it to widespread attention.

Bach’s titles, beginning with Sei Solo, bear some explanation. Why would he have written “Six Solo” instead of “Six Solos”? David Ledbetter, in his comprehensive book Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works, suggests, plausibly, that Bach had originally written “Solo” on the title page, and that when the collection grew in number, he added “Sei” before the word “Solo.” Looking at Bach’s fair copy online, one can see the logic of Ledbetter’s hypothesis.

As for the term “sonata”: At that time— approaching 1720—“sonatas” were understood to indicate instrumental works for strings or winds (as opposed to “toccatas,” instrumental works for organ or other keyboard, and “cantatas,” works for voice). Under the considerable influence of Italian violinists—Arcangelo Corelli (1653– 1713) above all—a violin “sonata” comprised four movements in a tempo arrangement of slow–fast–slow–fast. The modern concept of “sonata form” would come much later, with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Bach alternated the three more formal sonatas in his Sei Solo with three pieces in a more playful style, the partitas. (In Bach’s fair copy, he wrote the heading “partia,” which was the more common German version of the term “partita” in his time.) The partita (also known as a “suite”) was a set of instrumental dances that would include, typically, such popular styles as minuet, gigue, bourée, gavotte, allemande, sarabande and so on. They could be grouped in any pleasing arrangement of contrasting tempos.

In the Sei Solo, then, Bach created a grand quilt of contrasting styles—alternating three formal sonatas with three informal partitas—and within those six works, a kaleidoscopic mix of dances in various styles, fugues in various styles, and contrasting tempos and moods. His stunning achievement can hardly be comprehended.

Bach described them as “Sei Solo senza Basso accompagnato [Six solo without bass accompaniment],” indicating that, unlike the usual performance practice, which was to have one or two other musicians—such as a cello and bass—accompany a soloist, these six pieces were to be performed by one violinist alone. However, as Bach built into the score all of the implied and explicit harmonies that his rich melodic inventions suggested, the modern English term “unaccompanied” is a little misleading. Bach’s interwoven harmonic devices—double-stopped strings and intricate voice-leadings, for instance—provide a built-in accompaniment to the principal melodic lines.

Although Bach began the work in 1703 and finished it 17 years later, the integrity of the Sei Solo leads to the fully supportable conclusion that this set of six pieces forms one solidly conceived structure. The key progressions—G minor–B minor–A minor–D minor–C major–E major—create a satisfying journey from dark to light. Similarly, the architectural shape, with the grand Chaconne at the climax of the Partita in D minor, describes a dramatic arc that cannot have been accidental. The fugues, as second movements of the three sonatas, lend structural gravitas to the whole. Leading carefully to the Chaconne, at the conclusion of the fourth section, Bach increases the intensity and darkens the mood of the composition. Even descending from the great statement of the D-minor Partita, into the C-major Sonata, Bach prolongs the profound mood of the Chaconne by carefully tailoring and shaping the Sonata’s Adagio as a transition back to this world. By the time we reach the merry E-major Partita, we have been guided back to earth in a most sensitive and rewarding fashion.

This major work has elicited a great deal of scholarly analysis and commentary. More important, it has attracted generations of violinists to essay its heights and to bring it to musical life through intensive private study, in public performances, and on recordings. Christian Tetzlaff himself has recorded the Sei Solo twice, in 1994 and 2006. A highly recommended approach to hearing the work with even greater appreciation is to listen to Tetzlaff ’s Hänssler Classic CD while following the score of the work, available online in facsimile at IMSLP. org, the website of the Petrucci Music Library (International Music Score Library Project). Even listeners who are unable to read a music score will gain insights from following the elegant shapes and architectural design of Bach’s manuscript, the ne plus ultra for violinists everywhere.

Photo: Sonata No. 1: Adagio, in Bach’s handwriting

© 2014 Sandra Hyslop

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Artist Bio

Christian Tetzlaff, violin

An artist hailed for his musical integrity, technical assurance and intelligent, compelling interpretations, Christian Tetzlaff is internationally recognized as one of the most important violinists performing today. In North America Mr. Tetzlaff has performed with the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras; the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics; and the Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto symphonies. His European engagements have included the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam; the Berlin, London, Rotterdam and Vienna philharmonics; and the Bavarian Radio and London symphonies.

Also a dedicated chamber musician, Mr. Tetzlaff frequently collaborates with distinguished artists, including pianists Leif Ove Andsnes, Lars Vogt and Alexander Lonquich. 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. Among his numerous 92Y appearances, he played the complete Beethoven Violin and Piano Sonatas with Mr. Lonquich in autumn 2007; he performed the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas in October 2009; and he led the series “Connections” in April 2013, featuring clarinetist/composer Jörg Widmann and others in works by Mozart, Widmann, Bartók and Messiaen.

Mr. Tetzlaff opened his 2014/15 season two nights ago with an all-Bach program at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, including three of the Sonatas and Partitas. He then joins the Tetzlaff Quartet next Tuesday for a tour of Salzburg, London, Bonn, Seoul and Tokyo. Other highlights of the fall season include a European tour with the Swedish Radio Symphony, an Asian tour with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and performances with the London and Munich philharmonics and the Montreal Symphony. This season Mr. Tetzlaff also serves as the artist-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Mr. Tetzlaff ’s highly regarded discography reflects the breadth of his musical interests. He records regularly for Ondine: recent releases include the Mozart and Schumann violin sonatas with Mr. Vogt; the Mendelssohn and Schumann violin concertos with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony; and Widmann’s Violin Concerto, written for Mr. Tetzlaff, with the Swedish Radio Symphony. On September 9 the label released Shostakovich’s two violin concertos with the Helsinki Philharmonic. A disc of the three Brahms piano trios with Mr. Tetzlaff, Ms. Tetzlaff and Mr. Vogt is scheduled for next spring.

Christian Tetzlaff currently performs on a violin modeled after a Guarneri del Gesù 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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