Zehetmair Revisits the Bach Sonatas and Partitas

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

Thomas Zehetmair was 20 years old when he recorded Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas in 1982. Although the violinist used a modern instrument, his lean tone, minimum vibrato, fast tempos, and tendency toward short phrase groupings reflected the influence of period performance precepts via his one-time mentor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Returning to this repertoire nearly 40 years later with a Baroque violin and different bows for different movements, Zehetmair’s basic conceptions seem surprisingly similar to those of his younger self on the surface. Close comparative listening, however, reveals inner growth.

For example, while the A minor sonata’s Fugue remains brisk and clipped, the melodic profile is noticeably stronger now. The same goes for the touching Adagio movement. On the other hand, the D minor Partita Allemande has grown freer and more subjective, but the speedy Courente remains dance resistant. While many performances of the Chaconne suggest vast long-lined murals, Zehetmair presents a portfolio of articulations and dynamic levels that suggest a complex mosaic, whose harmonic and melodic signposts have intensified over time. You also notice this in Zetemair’s arguably overdone accented notes in the E major Partita Preludio.

The C major sonata’s concluding Allegro assai is heavier in texture than its playful earlier counterpart, with more of a legato emphasis that may also have something to do with ECM’s swimmy resonance, as opposed to the 1982 recording’s warmer sonics. The G minor sonata’s Presto Finale and the B minor Partita’s Presto Double finds Zehetmair’s virtuosity completely intact, together with newfound ferocity and abandon. An intelligent, inquiring mind and spirit informs these interpretations, for all of their quirks and provocative moments.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Ehnes (Analekta); Milstein (DG)

  • BACH, J.S.:
    Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo BWV 1001-1006
  • Thomas Zehetmair (Baroque violin)
  • ECM - 2551 2
  • CD

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