Johann Sebastian Bach was a virtuosic violinist.
His famous Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin bear witness to that.
He must have written a number of violin concertos as well, but unfortunately
only two of them - plus a concerto for two violins - have come down
to us. They were written during Bach's time in Cöthen, where a
large number of his instrumental works were created. It seems likely
that at least some of his violin concertos were re-worked in Leipzig
as harpsichord concertos. Over the years scholars and performers have
made attempts to reconstruct the original forms. This has led to a handful
of concertos for either the violin or the oboe.
This disc includes the two original violin concertos and two such reconstructions.
At the time this recording was made the Amsterdam Bach Soloists played
modern instruments, albeit in 'period style'. It was only logical for
them to invite Thomas Zehetmair to perform with them. In his early years
Zehetmair took lessons with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and this had a decisive
influence on his interpretations. His recording of Bach's Sonatas and
Partitas clearly show Harnoncourt's influence. Although performed on
a modern violin it is still a very rewarding set.
Zehetmair is by no means just a brilliant violinist; he is a very sincere
musician. He doesn't feel the need to do odd things to attract attention,
unlike a certain British colleague of his. He concentrates on music-making
and never puts himself centre-stage. I have had the pleasant experience
of hearing him several times with the Orchestra of the 18th Century,
giving outstanding and stylish performances of concertos by Mozart,
Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. Over the years I have heard several
of these Bach concertos, but unfortunately I didn't have the complete
set in my collection. Therefore when this reissue was included in a
list of review copies I didn't hesitate. I have not been disappointed.
The use of modern instruments and their natural limitations in regard
to the performance of pre-romantic music dictate that this disc cannot
go to the top of the bill. The best period instrument recordings have
to be preferred. That said, Zehetmair's interpretations are compelling
and as stylish as one could wish for where a modern instrument is used.
One can leave it to him to explore the expressive qualities of the slow
movements. The adagio from the Concerto in E
is simply wonderful.
Zehetmair plays with great sensitivity and much differentiation in regard
to tempo, dynamics and articulation. He also has a perfect sense of
rhythm: the fast movements have an irresistible drive and some listeners
may find it hard to keep their feet still.
The opening movement of the Concerto in d minor
, best known in
its later re-working for harpsichord, has strong improvisatory traits,
and these come off perfectly in Zehetmair's hands. His subtle timing,
his attention to key moments and his feeling for the dramatic tension
of this movement - and the concerto as a whole - result in a theatrical
performance which is hard to surpass. Only one movement fails to satisfy
in full: the andante from the Concerto in a minor
. It is very
well played and is not lacking in expression, but the tempo seems too
slow. I once heard Reinhard Goebel play this movement about twice as
fast, and I found that highly convincing.
This is a most rewarding reissue. Even those lovers of baroque music
who usually avoid modern instrument performances, should consider this
disc at budget price.
Johan van Veen
Masterwork Index: Bach violin