Johann Sebastian BACH. Sonatas and partitas (BWV 1001-1016)—Gottfried von der Goltz, violin—Aparte AP176—137:00, *****:

If at all you are familiar with Gottfried von der Goltz, it is as leader of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. His recordings, until recently, have been made with this ensemble in full orchestral and chamber configurations. That he now presents the Bach sonatas and partitas is a welcome addition to his musical portfolio as soloist. From the liner notes:

…the unusual compositional style of the Sei Solo, presenting many technical challenges, obviously requires perfect mastery of the instrument; but not until musicians have grasped the fact that the prime aim of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violinis to provide a musical representation of the human soul, will it be possible for them to approach a true under- standing of this complex music, leading to a profound emotional experience. 

So I worry when I read such things as “musical representation of the human soul.” It puts a profound weight on the musician’s shoulders to go beyond playing notes, dynamics, and rhythmic motifs. It labors them to turn the production of sound into something so profound as… a mirror into the human soul?

Perfect mastery of the instrument? Calling anything “perfect” is dangerous, but I kept thinking after each audition of this recording how the phrase “perfect mastery” sums up von der Goltz’s style. He’s a clean player using an instrument that is extremely even throughout its gamut. Nothing about his playing is introverted or extroverted. It’s in the middle. It’s balanced, and above that, we never really hear anything that indicates the technical challenges in the music. “Mastery of the instrument,” I think, can mean many different things. In light of this recording, it means I believe von der Goltz has ultimate control of his playing. And that’s pretty special, and even unique in the canon of available recordings.

The performance of these pieces—like that of other popular music—becomes a risky business. Today, in our enlightened time of older playing styles, when there are choices to be made between “baroque” and “modern” violin setups, the choice of style becomes a subject of debate in addition to what instrument we use. Pushing too far into any one direction presents the possibility of delighting some listeners, but too at the cost of offending others. And some performers may be better aligned particular tempo preferences. Or performing in an overly dry acoustic versus in the reverberant space of a cathedral. Continuous vibrato versus non at all? What does Mr. von der Goltz offer in his recording?

First and foremost, if his aim has been to somehow turn the music into a representation of the soul, it’s a soul that is calm, tempered, and open to appreciating the beauty afforded to life on this planet. The recording as a whole is remarkably consistent and seems clearly focused on presenting Bach’s ideas clearly, without any extroverted expression (or continuous vibrato) from the performer. In short, I’d call von der Goltz’s approach as balanced. It’s devoid of anything I’d think whiffs of twenty-first century histrionics to appeal to “a modern audience.” But balance is a tricky word, too. Balance sounds as if you gave something up to achieve something else. But balance here is something to be admired.

If we think of the soul the emotional center of a human being, of experiencing extreme loss, profound joy, and a connection to a world beyond our planet, then that’s not what this recording is. Instead of pushing the limits of Bach’s music, this recording clearly is playing safely within the lines and in the historical context. To be sure, this in some ways is the protestant Bach reading, and not a version, say, imitating something by Locatelli, Tartini, or some other extroverted Italian player from the era. And with all the recordings available of these pieces, this approach is, for me, a welcome one. It forces us to listen. And the rewards, of course, are profound.

Portait Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

In the opening Preludio from the third partita in E, BWV 1006, the very familiar cascade of notes is played cleanly and clearly, with a sympathetic reverb, but nothing so wet that it smears the music. Von der Goltz applies dynamic shading, but never is the instrument pushed to extremes. Instead of going out of his way to point out the differences between phrases, his approach pulls you in. The balance we get is one of temperament. We get a performance that makes it easy, perhaps more easy in some cases, to enjoy the freshness of Bach, rather than the heaviness we sometimes experience with performers attempting to point out every profound musical idea Bach wrote. To be sure, I like some of those performances too. But the balance here is refreshing.

The ending of this same piece offers one of many treats von der Goltz infuses into his performances: the small ornamentation we hear at the end is clever and perhaps unexpected. It’s again about balance. He’s added his mark on the music in a subtle, but beautiful way. We hear it all over the set. The ending of the Presto from the first sonata, BWV 1001, with his introduction of a major third in the last chord. Or the chordal note he adds near the ending of the first Corrente from the first partita, BWV 1002. Or in the ending of a phrase, 1:45 into the Andante of the second sonata, BWV 1003. You’ll hear his mark too in the Corrente of the second partita (BWV 1004), both rhythmically and harmonically. It’s the type of subtle personalization that comes from someone who feels comfortable enough with the music to infuse their own turn. And in so doing I feel von der Goltz is living, breathing, and living in true baroque style without going too far afield. I’ll say it again: it’s balanced.

Two of my favorite tracks from the Bach set are the Giga and Ciaccona from the second partita. The Giga is full of call-and-response figures, or “echoes.” Like some “modern” interpretations, von der Goltz enhances these repeated phrases with dynamic shifts, but they are subtle. Mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte, perhaps, not pp to ff, as I’ve experienced elsewhere. And then into the Chaconne, the approach is altogether similar. In some performances I feel there’s such a profundity associated with the piece that performers guild the performance with extra dynamics, more pauses, more space between the notes in the opening line. I applaud von der Goltz for forging ahead. At 13:40, his reading is not the fastest, but certainly his is on the faster side. Nothing, however, feels rushed. The momentum he begins the piece with feels natural. The phantasitcus-style shifts (quick changes in character between phrases, one after the other), are treated with the same delicate balance of dynamics and tempo that has ruled the other pieces in the set. It’s balanced. Not too much or too little, it’s clearly being controlled. The result is music left to breathe on its own.

When I reflect on albums from the Freiburg orchestra they too subscribe to a balanced, clean performance style. To hear this style distilled so nicely by one performer shows, I believe, a performance philosophy under the microscope. The consistent control conveyed throughout between tempo (even when rubato is applied subtly), tone, and dynamics is the opposite of being showy. Von der Goltz is putting the music front and center in lieu of himself, the performer. Upon repeated listenings this reveals to me the sublime achievement of this recording, enough, I think, to consider it a true reference recording: clean, technically-precise, and respectful of the bounds and limits of the instrument for which this music was composed without resorting to extraordinary gimmicks.

—Sebastian Herrera

Link to more information and track samples here:

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