Composed three centuries ago, Johann Sebastian Bach’s set of six works for solo violin stands as one of the holy grails of the instrument’s literature – perhaps the holiest. Now the great Austrian musician Thomas Zehetmair makes his own mark in the rich history of this music, revisiting the repertoire on period instruments.
Zehetmair is an extraordinary violinist and a consistently inquisitive and self-questioning artist. He has not only played the big concertos but has given close attention to chamber music and new repertory, and has also found an extra calling as a conductor, channeling this varied experience into his return to the formidable cornerstone of Bach’s solo masterpieces.
As a young man Zehetmair worked with Nikolaus Harnoncourt in his period ensemble, working with him to prepare for his first recording of the sonatas and partitas on a modern instrument. For this new recording, he draws out exquisite colours from two violins from Bach’s lifetime, both of them by masters in the German tradition, but there is nothing antiquarian in his approach – old instruments, for him, are tools with which to express a modern sensibility: alert, edgy, multivalent. His performance engages, too, with the superb acoustic of the priory church of St Gerold, in Austria where so many legendary ECM recordings have been made.
Peter Gülke, in his accompanying essay, refers to the “floating spirituality” of this music, and to how Bach here offers one side of a conversation with the performer, whom he leaves free to determine matters of dynamic shading, phrasing and bowing. Zehetmair brings vividness and intelligence to the conversation on a recording that, deeply steeped in the music and true, is at the same time powerfully original.
Born in Salzburg, Thomas Zehetmair made his debut at the Salzburg Festival when he was sixteen and started out as a recording artist the following year, with an account of the Mozart concerto in B flat (which the composer wrote at the same age). A first recording of the Bach solo works followed in 1983, when he was twenty-one.
By the mid-1990s he had recorded much of the mainstream violin repertory, but his interests in chamber music were already blossoming. He founded his own string quartet in 1994, with his wife violist Ruth Killius. The quartet made it a habit to perform all works from memory – even difficult contemporary ones – and to concentrate on just one programme per season. For ECM they have recorded quartets by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Bartók, Schumann, Hindemith and Beethoven.
Zehetmair has also formed other long-lasting partnerships, notably with Heinz Holliger, with whom he took part in a ground-breaking recording of sonatas by Jan Dismas Zelenka. And it was for Zehetmair that Holliger wrote his Violin Concerto in 1993-5, and the two have collaborated on recordings of the composer’s chamber music, all documented by ECM New Series.
From working occasionally with chamber orchestras, Zehetmair moved on in 2002 to a commitment as music director to the Northern Sinfonia, based in north-east England. He stayed with them for twelve seasons, forming connections also with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Musikkollegium Winterthur. Earlier this year he began a tenure with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra.
Whether as violinist or as conductor, his intention is the same: to discover “the purpose and relationship of every single note in the overall musical architecture”.