Sebastian Bohren
Bach, Jordan, Ravel / Menuhin, Ysaÿe, Fortin

Schloss Uster, 2019-10-13

4.5-star rating

2019-10-18 — Original posting

Solo-Recital in kleinem Rahmen: Sebastian Bohren im Schloss Uster — Zusammenfassung

Im Rahmen von “Musik im Schloss” präsentierte Sebastian Bohren im “Rittersaal” des Schlosses Uster ein interessantes, abwechslungsreiches, ausgewogenes und unterhaltsames Programm. Den Rahmen bildete die einleitende zweite Partita von Bach mit der berühmten Chaconne, sowie das Andante aus Bachs zweiter Solosonate zum Schluss. Dazwischen als virtuoser Höhepunkt die dritte Sonate (“Ballade”) von Eugène Ysaÿe, gewidmet Georges Enescu. Dessen Schüler wiederum, der Geiger Yehudi Menuhin, hatte Ravel’s Lied “Kaddisch” (der Gesang eines Rabbis am Grab) für Violine solo umgeschrieben.

Nach der einleitenden Partita von Bach folgte die “Passagalia” von Bohrens Studienkollegen Lucas F. Jordan. Diese schlug den Bogen von Heinrich Ignaz Franz Bibers Passacaglia aus den Rosenkranz-Sonaten zu Olivier Messiaens Harmonik. Vor dem Bach-Abschluss sorgte der “Abgrund der Angst” von Rachel Fortin, einer weiteren Studienkollegin des Geigers, für eine wirkungsvolle Abwechslung.

Ich empfand das Programm nicht nur als inspirierend, kontrast- und beziehungsreich für den Hörer, sondern auch als ideal ausgewogen in seinen technischen und intellektuellen Ansprüchen für den Solisten—durchwegs ein Genuss!

Table of Contents


Attending this concert was a short-term decision. However, I could simply not skip the opportunity to hear the Swiss violinist Sebastian Bohren (*1987, see also Wikipedia) perform in my hometown. I have heard him in concert several times already—see my report from his solo recital in Windisch in April this year for pointers to older concert reports and additional information on the artist. Sebastian Bohren performs on the 1761 “Ex-Wannamaker Hart” violin by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786).

I went to this concert with the intent not to write a review—I even explained that to the artist after the event. Well, I was there with the scores in my iPad, and of course I took my notes, as usual. That forces me to listen carefully, to pay attention to detail, while actually making me enjoy the music even more. So… in the end, I decided that it would be a pity not to write down my thoughts… 🙂


The published program announcement just mentioned Bach’s Partita for solo violin No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004, as well as Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.3 from op.27, a.k.a. “Ballade”, plus “additional works as announced during the recital”. The final program of the recital—scheduled to last about 1 hour—turned out as follows:

Setting, etc.

To me, this wasn’t the smallest event in terms of audience size. However, it sure was the tiniest in the size of the venue, even including the private recitals that I have reported about. The venue was the Schloss (castle) Uster, in the center of the town where I live, overlooking the little city from a shallow hill.

The history of Schloss Uster goes back to around 1200 AD, but is hardly documented. Even the naming “Schloss” (Castle) vs. “Burg” (Fortress) is unclear. It never was the home to any nobility. In any case, for centuries, the building was a mere ruin of the central tower, only in the early 20th century, in the context of historicism, the tower was reconstructed to its current shape (without claim of any historical correctness). The first floor in the tower holds an armory, the second floor a “knight’s hall” (which is where the concert took place), and the top floor holds an open gallery, offering a nice 360 degree view of the surroundings.

The seating plan for the concert venue shows 50 seats. Split into two blocks in the small, square-shaped room. The audience was around 40 people. The concert was part of the series “Klassik im Schloss“, which includes events in Schaffhausen, as well as here in Uster.

Concert & Review

Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita No.2 for Violin solo in D minor, BWV 1004

As Sebastian Bohren explained, in 1720, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was on a trip to Carlsbad, with his patron, when his first wife, Maria Barbara, suddenly died. Around that time, Bach wrote his “Sei Solo”, BWV 1001 – 1006. Bohren explained that the famous Chaconne (Ciaccona) that concludes the Partita No.2 for Violin solo in D minor, BWV 1004 may well reflect the feelings around the loss of the composer’s wife. The five movements of that second partita are

  1. Allemanda
  2. Corrente
  3. Sarabanda
  4. Giga
  5. Ciaccona (Chaconne)

This was the first time that I heard Sebastian Bohren perform the entire Partita No.2. He did perform the Chaconne in his recital in Lucerne, on 2018-09-13, though.

The Performance

I. Allemanda

It was amazing to realize how much the dry, “little” acoustics in this venue highlighted Sebastian Bohren’s light, “discharging” articulation. The artist used very little vibrato (except for highlighting key notes in a phrase). And he made no attempt to compensate the absence of reverberation by extra legato. Also, in Bach’s Partitas and sonatas, there is rarely a need for extra ornamentation. That’s all already in Bach’s notation. In fact, throughout the Partita, Sebastian Bohren added only (less than) a handful of extra ornaments—and if so, only in repeats.

Needless to say: the violinist took into account the dance character of the movements in a baroque suite (in particular, the standard ones also found in this Partita: Allemande — Courante — Sarabande — Gigue). So, there was this gentle swaying in dynamics and agogics—Klangrede in the best sense of the word! Often, the music sounded like an intense dialog of short phrases.

II. Corrente

One should think that playing in such dry, “small” acoustics is cruel, as it reveals every small detail in articulation, the purity of tones and intonation. However, Sebastian Bohren showed no signs of nervousness. As stated above, he made no attempt to cover up or compensate: his aim is not perfection and smoothness in tone and articulation. Rather, he played with grip, with “bite”. This was particularly obvious in the Corrente, which did not feel like refined, artful (aristocratic) dancing, but momentarily rather reminded of an earthy peasant dance. Just in the case of doubt: this comment is not meant to be derogatory to either the music or the performance—quite to the contrary!

III. Sarabanda

Here, we could enjoy the advantages of small, analytic acoustics, which exposed the finest details in articulation, dynamics, and the occasional, subtle vibrato: beautiful! Bohren paid attention to every detail, such as the timing of punctuations (e.g., the demisemiquavers in bar 19). Still, he did not audibly dissect the music. And nothing was superficial in his performance.

IV. Giga

Again a movement with strong, often accentuated “dance swaying”. In traditional interpretations, this (and other) movements often felt like a “sewing machine” running through the semiquavers that flow through almost the entire piece. It was such a pleasure to note how Bohren avoided mechanical regularity: he managed to insert phrasing / “respiration” rests, to make the music “breathe”. At the same time, he still was able to maintain the musical flow. And, of course, the intonation was flawless throughout.

V. Ciaccona (Chaconne)

A pinnacle in the entire violin literature! Sebastian Bohren approached this with consideration and a natural attitude, immersed and resting in the music, his eyes usually closed. Only very rarely (e.g., around bar 57) a meticulous listener might have noted a very slight, but conscious effort not to let the pace gradually run away. The extended arpeggio section with its hidden polyphony retained outstanding clarity.

Then, that miraculous D major section, which the artist must have taken as Bach’s intimate dialog with his deceased spouse. Soft, infinitely gentle—but not exceedingly sweet! Where the movement changes from quarter notes to quavers (later to semiquavers), Bohren started with distinct détaché (almost staccato) articulation, the gradually intensifying, more and more immersed, up to the climax that again resolves into arpeggio movement. And again, the music felt like an intense dialog, Klangrede.

The D major section comes to an end, giving way to the more earnest, final D minor segment. This starts with a surprising, almost harsh B♭ major (!) chord (a baroque “Tristan moment”!). Bohren left a very short pause. He did not want to exaggerate the shock (which it of course still was!). After the surprise, he took back dynamics, softened the articulation, then only gradually built up to the final climax and the appeasing ending. And also here, the violinist kept the calm, avoided the slightest signs of hurrying, without diminishing the drama—despite the dry acoustics.

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Lucas F. Jordan: “Passagalia” for violin solo (2006)

During his studies, Sebastian Bohren met Lucas F. Jordan, a composer who was born in Brazil and now lives in London and Zurich. Jordan wrote a Passagalia” for violin solo (2006) that he dedicated to Bohren. The name is not a spelling error, but a deliberate alteration of Passacaglia: the short piece (around 3′) takes the theme from the last of the Rosenkranz-Sonaten (Rosary Sonatas) that the German composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644 – 1704) wrote around 1676. As Bach’s Chaconne, that last sonata is for violin without accompaniment and consists of a single movement, a Passacaglia.

Jordan starts off with the simple, descending 4-tone bass theme from Biber’s Passacaglia, then progressively adds harmonies / textures in the style of Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992).

The Performance

A very nice, short piece with an “early baroque” beginning, gradually building up in the complexity of harmonies and textures, then returning to a calm, almost pure baroque ending. I could not say that the harmonies reminded me of Messiaen, but for sure, they were not upsetting at all, and the 4-tone bass motif that goes through the entire piece provided a “bracket”, offered something for the listener to hold on to. Needless to say that as the dedicatee, Sebastian Bohren offered a flawless performance. Should I say near-perfect? The success of the interpretation could be seen from the length of the silence after the ending!

Rating: ★★★★

Maurice Ravel: 1. “Kaddisch” from Deux mélodies hébraïques, M.A22 (arr. Yehudi Menuhin)

In 1914, the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) wrote Deux mélodies hébraïques (Two Hebrew Songs), M.A22. These are based on traditional Hebrew melodies:

  1. Kaddisch: Yithgaddal weyithkaddash (Aramaic)
  2. L’énigme éternelle: Fragt die Velt die alte Casche (Yiddish)

The first one, Kaddisch, originates from the Rabbi’s song at funerals. It has seen numerous instrumental arrangements. One of them, by the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916 – 1999), just takes the vocal line onto the solo violin, as a monody, which Sebastian Bohren placed against the polyphony in the preceding pieces. This has since become a popular encore for violinists.

The Performance

Such deeply sad, mourning music, so typical of a Rabbi’s singing in articulation, vibrato, the tonal transitions—so vocal, indeed! Music seemingly without rhythm, emote, intense, endless, continuing in the listener’s mind, even after it is finished…

Rating: ★★★★★

Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonata for Solo Violin in D minor “à Georges Enescu“, op.27/3, “Ballade

Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931) is most famous for his Six Solo Sonatas, op.27, each dedicated to a famous violinist of Ysaÿe’s time. The Sonata for Solo Violin in D minor “à Georges Enescu“, op.27/3, “Ballade—as indicated in the title—is dedicated to the Romanian composer and violinist Georges Enescu (1881 – 1955). Enescu was Yehudi Menuhin’s teacher. So, with this piece, Sebastian Bohren closed the circle back to the third work in his recital, which was arranged by Menuhin. This composition also featured in Sebastian Bohren’s solo recital in Windisch, on 2019-04-21, so I’ll refrain from further comments on the music.

The Performance

Sebastian Bohren almost immediately resumed his recital with Ysaÿe’s “Ballade“. As this was a repeat performance for me, I’ll keep my comments at a minimum here. Ysaÿe wrote his six sonatas as technical challenges, which they certainly are. I experienced the performance as very expressive and intense. And of course, it was technically excellent. In Bohren’s hands, that piece seemed to have the architecture the size of a cathedral!

Rating: ★★★★

Rachel Fortin: Abyss of Anxiety, for Violin solo

Another one of Sebastian Bohren’s colleagues from the time of his studies is Rachel Fortin (*1980), a native of Prague. With her composition “Abyss of Anxiety” for Violin solo from 2007, as he explained, Bohren wanted to “purge the listener’s ears” with a “truly contemporary work”:

The Performance

As for the “purging the ears”: yes, this is contemporary music—though by no means shocking or upsetting. However, it did indeed offer new facets of violin playing. One can think of this as program music, where rapid tremolo associated with left-hand pizzicato depicts the abyss, the gaping void, extreme pitch, glissandi, and ff exclamations stand for the Angst, the terror of utter anxiety. Excellent music and performance—just only too short!

Rating: ★★★★

Johann Sebastian Bach: III. Andante from the Sonata No.2 for Violin solo in A minor, BWV 1003

To close his recital, Sebastian Bohren returned to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). The Sonata No.2 for Violin solo in A minor, BWV 1003 features four movements:

  1. Grave
  2. Fuga
  3. Andante
  4. Allegro

Among these, Sebastian Bohren selected the Andante, one of Bach’s most peaceful and serene movements. In his solo recital in Windisch, on 2019-04-21, Sebastian Bohren actually performed the entire Sonata in A minor, BWV 1003.

The Performance

With the final piece, Sebastian Bohren closed the big circle, the bracket around the recital. The perfect, peaceful and serene closure to the recital: should I dissect this beautiful music with additional comments? I don’t think so!

Rating: ★★★★★


A short recital in a small venue! However, Sebastian Bohren composed an excellent program, bracketed by Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, a central, virtuosic climax with a sonata by Ysaÿe, complemented by three short pieces, with interesting interconnections, from baroque / pre-baroque time (Biber) to contemporary, from Ysaÿe to Enescu to Menuhin. A perfect sequence of pieces, and also well-balanced in terms of physical, intellectual and emotional “load”…

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