January 29, 2020

  • Bowing to Bach--Violin Solo Sonatas and Partitas


    Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
    Tomas Cotik, violin.
    Centaur 3755/3756
    Disc One: Total Time:  57:43
    Disc One: Total Time:  60:50
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Violinist Tomas Cotik explores the solo sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) in this new two-disc release from Centaur Records.  The six works are among the most personal expressions of Bach’s.  One might even romanticize that these are the composer using music to channel his personal loss at the death of his wife Maria Barbara that year (1720).  Even without that possible inspiration, the pieces are, like the solo cello suites, amazing feats of compositional skill with snapshots of musical style and dance music influences popular at the time.  The album places the first two sonatas on disc one sandwiching the first of the solo partitas.  Disc two reverses this placing the partitas as bookends and the third sonata at the center.  There is plenty of competition on disc with hundreds of recordings of all these works often chosen by one’s affinity for a particular performer or sound.  Some of that may also influence one’s decision related to this release.  Cotik’s performance takes a page from the authentic performance practice school which follows current understanding of Baroque style.  His instrument is a modern one, with what sounds like softer strings than one might find in a contemporary instrument.  Also interesting is his decision to use a Baroque bow.  This plays out rather impressively as Cotik is able to create delicate nuanced and full sounds for the slower movements and a tighter, brisker response for the faster passage work.

    Such sensibilities can be instantly appreciated in the Violin Sonata No. 1 in g, BWV 1001.  There is beautiful subtlety in the sound and phrasing in the opening “Adagio” and in the third movement “Siciliana”.  (The same can be said of his haunting performance of the opening “Grave” in BWV, 1003.)  A hint of the technical virtuosity to come appears in the second movement “fugue” (less strict than one might anticipate), but it is really in the superb “Presto” of the finale where Cotik’s technical virtuosity comes forth.  The first Partita in b, BWV 1002, is like a lone dance master revisiting popular dance forms.  Though not the longest, the eight movements here give the soloist plenty of opportunity to explore rhythms and an almost improvisatory feel that shifts in mood from slower expressive styles to faster-paced “doubles” that tend to explore a wider range of the instrument.  These are the moments where Cotik’s virtuosity shines with an almost breathless unfolding of the musical materials that traverse the range of the instrument.  Tone and pitch are also spot on in these often breathless renditions.  It makes those calmer, restrained moments even more stark by comparison.  Shaping some of these lines is another important facet in communicating the music’s power and Cotik manages this quite well with excellent rhythmic emphasis coupled with a fine sense of overall line.  The two partitas on disc two (BWV. 1004 and 1006) feature melodic ideas that are a bit more interesting than those in the first partita.  This is especially true of the third partita with its movements more closely aligned with Bach’s dance suites.  The real stand out amon them is the intense chaconne that concludes the second partita.  Cotik brings out these pointed dance rhythms very well here.  The “Corrente” of the second partita just zips along nicely with moments that feel the most improvisatory yet of the pieces.  The contrasts between these fast and slow dance extremes is brought out equally well in these two partitas.  The solo sonata in the midst of them also seems like the real crowning achievement of the sonatas themselves.  The most amazing is the extensive “fugue” movement.

    What is striking here by pairing the works this way is that we get two sides of Bach.  The one picture evokes a grand master of expressiveness and indivudal seriousness, the other a lighter, more public persona.  Two sides of a composer’s personality and interests that cut through the performances.  It is worth noting that even in the sonatas, some of that dance-like quality manages to seep nicely into Cotik’s interpretation.

    Solo Baroque works are certainly not always the first thing one turns to from this period, but here, as in most any work by Bach, there is a great deal to reward the listener.  The music is quite engaging and when played as it is here, it engages the listener without feeling too fussy or overtly academic.  At the same time, the performance have an air of authenticity to them that also help ease the listener into this fascinating sound world where one instrument can seem to still manage to infer harmonies, cross rhythms, and intriguing counterpoint.

    Cotik has been building a steady fine catalogue of quite varied musical styles.  He has recorded one of these works before as part of a collection of music.  This release will allow some comparison there, but really it gives us a window into his interpretations of Bach’s intimate music.  The sound helps provide an equally warm ambience that aids Cotik’s performance without blurring it with echoes or delays.  Instead, it provides us a perfect seat with this music front and center.  One can hear for themselves how the use of the Baroque bow changes the articulations and strength of tone that Cotik coaxes from his instrument.  The faster movements seem to breeze by more than many other contemporary interpretations which may be due to this change.  That said, the bottom line is that Bach’s music really does shine here with both its moments of beauty and fascinating, virtuoso demands and displays.  Disc two seems to be the most engaging of the two, most likely because the music there is also more interesting, but that is not to take away from the equally fine work that occurs on disc one.  It is really a feast for Bach lovers interested in hearing Cotik’s approach and sound ideas for the performance of this music.  Centaur’s release is certainly worth exploring and the performances here are worthy of repeated exploration and enjoyment.



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