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Two weeks of Bach at Davies concludes with Tetzlaff’s solo violin marathon

Autograph of the opening movement of BWV 1001 (with Bach's signature at the bottom)
Autograph of the opening movement of BWV 1001 (with Bach's signature at the bottom)from Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, the two-week series of concerts organized by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to celebrate the work of Johann Sebastian Bach came to a close. Following a recital by Martin Haselböck demonstrating the full force of the Ruffatti Concert Organ and two SFS subscription concerts presenting, respectively, instrumental and choral diversity, the series concluded with the intimacy of a single violin on the stage. The violinist was Christian Tetzlaff; and, over the course of about two and one-half hours (including an intermission), he performed the complete set of sonatas and partitas that Bach composed for solo violin (BWV 1001–1006).

The word “intimacy” is not often used to describe events in Davies. However, since this was a program in the Great Performers Series, all sections of the house were occupied; and, if not all seats were filled, there was definitely an impressive number of attendees, almost all of whom seemed to take their Bach very seriously. For his part, Tetzlaff may have been alone on the stage; but he never failed to project even the softest of his tones into the entire audience space with distinctive clarity.

Had Bach himself been part of that audience, he probably would have been more than a little puzzled. There is a good chance that he never thought of these six pieces being performed before an audience. More likely, he wrote the music for pedagogical purposes, directed at his sons and perhaps some of his noble patrons. He may also have written these pieces to cultivate his own technique as a virtuoso violinist. Beyond the puzzlement, however, the experience of observing so many people watching a lone violinist jump through all the hoops he had conceived would probably have given him pleasant satisfaction.

However, Tetzlaff’s performance was more than just satisfying. It was downright compelling. His capacity to command the softest of dynamics was complemented by the vigor with which he could elicit full-throated sonorities from the same instrument. Similarly, he could evoke those sonorities through both the rapid-fire execution of the most driving rhythms and the almost recitative-like qualities of slow tempos. It was through this breadth of expressive techniques that Tetzlaff could endow each of the movements of each of the compositions with its own unique characteristic stamp, however conventional their formal structures may have been.

While these techniques may have been scrupulously calculated and planned, there was also a stirring impression of spontaneity in Tetzlaff’s interpretations. This was particularly the case when he faced the challenge of longer durations, as in the fugues for the A minor (BWV 1003) and C major (BWV 1005) sonatas and, of course, the Ciaccona that concludes the D minor partita (1004), whose entire duration tends to match that of the full sequence of its four preceding movements. Similarly, while there did not seem to be much attention to honoring the source styles for the dance movements, each of these movements had its own dance-like quality, complete with returning patterns of steps but always in the immediacy of the present, meaning that repeated steps were never strictly duplicated.

As the result the two-week series concluded not only by according the highest respect and expression to some of Bach’s best instrumental writing but also with the most sincere and engaging celebration of the very in-the-moment act of making music as satisfying for the performer as for the serious listener.