Sebastian Bohren
Restart After the Lockdown: Bach for Violin Solo

St.Peter, Zurich, 2020-06-28

4.5-star rating

2020-07-05 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

First Concerts after the Lockdown

For four months, concert life in Switzerland has essentially been silent, non-existent, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the country appeared to have “mastered” the crisis, the social / physical distancing rules were gradually relaxed in June — and, at long last, concert organizers could start thinking about re-starting public concert performances (even though after the lockdown, the incidents appear to be on the rise again).

This isn’t merely a matter of being allowed to perform events with audiences of initially 300, later up to 1000 people (provided the organizer had established viable protection measures). Maybe more than that, in the case of typical concert audiences, this required a concert organizer to be trustworthy to potential visitors, as (especially elder) people who spent the past weeks and months in isolation might only attend a public concert if they deem the event safe.

(Post-)Lockdown Measures

Prior to the concert, as well as throughout the event, it was clear that the organizer, Hochuli Konzert AG, had been extra-careful and diligent about keeping the audience secure:

  • On-line ticket pre-ordering was mandatory (tickets were mailed to the visitors).
  • The tickets were free, such as to avoid physical interaction in connection with payments, etc. (donations were of course invited and welcome, either upon exiting, or via electronic payment).
  • Rather than trying to fill the capacity of around 640 seats in the venue, only a limited number of tickets were given out, with carefully assigned seats, in order to maintain physical distancing (see also the picture above).
  • In order to minimize social / physical interactions, there was no intermission.
  • Of course, people not feeling well were urged not to attend.
  • It was comforting to see that a fair number of attendees were wearing face masks, some even throughout the concert.

The venue was the Kirche St.Peter in Zurich. That’s an excellent location for chamber music concerts, see my earlier reviews.


The Artist: Sebastian Bohren

The two concerts that day brought recitals by two Swiss artists, both of which I had encountered in previous occasions (for the second concert with the cellist Chiara Enderle Samatanga, see my separate report):

In my blog, I have written about the violinist Sebastian Bohren (*1987, see also Wikipedia) several times. I have heard him as soloist, as well as in chamber music formations: as duo partner, part of a string trio, and member of the Stradivari Quartet — see my earlier concert reports. Sebastian Bohren is one of the most prominent violinists of his generation—not just in Switzerland. Over the past years, he has been working hard, consequently and successfully towards his solo career. A clear indication for this career focus: it wasn’t entirely surprising that he left the Stradivari Quartet a few weeks ago.

When I heard him for the first time (Zurich, 2015-10-13), Sebastian Bohren was performing on the Stradivari violin “King George” from 1710, which he got access to as a member of the Stradivari Quartet. That instrument was a limited time loan—a few years ago, the instrument went back to the owner (a foundation). Sebastian Bohren then was lucky enough to get access to the 1761 violin “Ex-Wannamaker Hart” by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786), a marvelous instrument, as we will see. The artist used a modern Tourte type bow.


Program

Sebastian Bohren’s program “just” featured two compositions, both from the “Sei Solo” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750):


Concert & Review

Bach: Sonata No.2 in A minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1003

Bach’s Sei Solo” for the violin (BWV 1001 – 1006) are core pieces in the violin repertoire—every professional violinist will sooner of later run into these compositions. Excerpts from these compositions for part of every violinist’s education. The Sonatas and Partitas cover a wide scope in technical demands—from the popular and relatively easy Partita No.3 in E major, up to the famous Chaconne in the Partita No.2 in D minor (see below), or the extreme technical, physical, and musical challenges of the fugues in the three sonatas.

As the other two sonatas in Bach’s collection, the Sonata No.2 in A minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1003 is a “church sonata” or sonata da chiesa. All three sonatas feature four movements in the scheme slow — fugue — slow — fast. That contrasts with the three Partitas, which are baroque suites, composed of dance movements, see below. In BWV 1004, the annotations are as follows:

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

The Performance

Not surprisingly, Sebastian Bohren has been studying Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for many years. Three years ago—then still with the 1710 Stradivari “King George”—he even did a recording of BWV 1004 – 1006 (Partitas No.2 in D minor and No.3 in E major, Sonata No.3 in C major). However, he is constantly seeking to improve his interpretation, hardly satisfied now with earlier recordings even just a few years ago (see the bottom of this post). As he also switched to a different violin (his current 1761 Guadagnini), he abandoned the idea of filling the gap of BWV 1001 – 1003. I suspect (and hope) that at some point he will do a new, complete recording.

The recorded pieces (BWV 1004 – 1006) have been part of Sebastian Bohren’s repertoire for a number of years; the Sonata No.2 in A minor, BWV 1003 has moved into the artist’s focus more recently (it’s the first time I hear him perform this sonata), which is the reason for him keeping the sheet music in reach. Still, the performance proved the artist’s thorough familiarity with the composition: I think he merely used the sheet music as safety net.

First Encounter

The heavily ornamented Grave movement not only established the mutual contact between audience and artist—it also allowed the artist to fine-tune tone and articulation to the acoustics of the venue. I have heard Sebastian Bohren perform Bach before—yet, I can’t resist stating that the first bars & lines in this movement already were a most gratifying and enjoyable experience! Bohren performed with virtually no vibrato, yet, the Guadagnini’s warm, characterful tone was blooming up, easily filled the venue. Moreover, acoustics, the instrument’s astounding sonority, and the artist’s articulation and dynamics appeared to match up in an ideal way. Concert life appeared to start up again under the best of circumstances!

I. Grave

Bohren approached this movement at a calm pace, letting phrases and motifs “speak”, forming harmonious arches within long notes, in motifs, as well as across longer phrases. The music was “breathing”, nothing was hasted or pushed—rather relaxed, yet maintaining the ideal amount of tension, also when the artist appeared to listen to the fading long notes and their reverberation. An ideal mix of simplicity (in tone and articulation) and richness in expression, dynamics and phrasing. And an excellent balance between lively Klangrede in motifs & phrases, and the broad dynamic arches in the larger, overall structure.

In all the above, I particularly enjoyed the subtle, soft beginnings and endings of phrases, the retracting into momentary silence, and how the tone never was in danger of turning “thick”, pasty. It was such a huge, if not infinite contrast to the constantly dense, if not even pressed tone, let alone the irritating abundance of vibrato in “great” interpretations from 60 – 90 years ago! I’m thinking of (formerly) highly reputed recordings with artists such as Yehudi Menuhin (1934/36) and Joseph Szigeti (1955).
★★★★½

II. Fuga

A four-part fugue on the violin is highly challenging (if not seemingly impossible) almost by definition. In Bohren’s rich and highly differentiated dynamics, and thanks to the artist’s light articulation, the fugue remained transparent and natural at all times, enabling the listener to follow not just the fugue theme, but also the often fragmentary, hidden secondary voices. The movement not only exposed the beautiful sonority in the high strings, but also the warm, full tone of the G and D strings—and Sebastian Bohren’s absolutely flawless intonation: pure pleasure, indeed!
★★★★½

III. Andante

The Andante is one of Bach’s most touching, beautiful inventions. Sebastian Bohren has previously performed this as encore, at the closing of a recital (see my earlier report from 2019-10-13). And again, I enjoyed the unpretentious, almost vibrato-less tone, in combination with the warm expression and sonority: calm, peace, and pure, flourishing “inner” beauty, especially when the tone retracted to ppp (e.g., at the beginning of the second part)
★★★★★

IV. Allegro

This movement is one of the rare instances where Bach added dynamic annotation to indicate echo effects between subsequent, repeated motifs. Here, this interplay between a phrase and its response was further enriched by the harmonious reverberation offered by the acoustics of the venue. Sebastian Bohren’s playing retained lightness and plasticity in dynamics and articulation, while gently shaping the phrases using agogics: so much inner life, Klangrede, and sheer beauty. And the performance was devoid of mishaps throughout, the intonation virtually perfect, the tone flawless!
★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Bach: Partita No.2 in D minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004

The Partita in D minor for Violin solo, BWV 1004 features five movements:

  1. Allemanda
  2. Corrente
  3. Sarabanda
  4. Giga
  5. Ciaccona

The Performance

As mentioned, Bach’s second Partita has been on Sebastian Bohren’s repertoire for a while (expectedly, the artist now performed this by heart). I witnessed him perform the entire BWV 1004 in concert in Uster, on 2019-10-13, and the year before, I heard him play the Chaconne in Lucerne, on 2018-09-13. With this, I’m, keeping my comments somewhat shorter than usual.

I. Allemanda

Despite the moderate, broad pace, Sebastian Bohren managed to retain the dance character through gentle, swaying agogics, letting the music “breathe”. A beautiful performance. I had minor question marks about momentary, slight accelerations in bars 8 and 11. And to me personally, some of the triplet groups (e.g., bars 2 and 3, etc.) felt a tiny bit fast (hardly noticeable, but still…); or was I expecting a slight broadening, extra emphasis, highlighting?
★★★★

II. Corrente

While the dance character of the first movement may not be instantly obvious to everyone, here it was very clear! Light in the articulation, full of life and drive, light, resolute, yet never rigid. The movement ends in a long note with fermata—here, the ending was short, almost abrupt—which actually fitted the rest of the movement: an interesting idea!
★★★★★

III. Sarabanda

Beautiful, radiant, “talking / narrating”, expressive, with highly differentiated dynamics. I haven’t explored why I somehow expected quaver pairs such as the ones in bar 3 to be a tad inégal (i.e., not exactly metric, favoring the first note in each pair)—expectation from other performances, perhaps? The score does not imply this by any means.
★★★★½

IV. Giga

Full of drive, enthralling, vivid, filled with life and expression! Lively dynamics and articulation, not empty virtuosity, and far, far from the hollow, mechanic sewing machine that some artists appear to imitate in this Gigue!
★★★★★

Needless to say: the technical and musical climax of the recital followed with the last movement, the famous Chaconne (Ciaccona). Even though Sebastian Bohren must have performed this countless times, he is still approaching this monstrous movement with utter respect, if not slight fear: he seemed a tad pale while collecting all available concentration and focus before raising the bow. However, that only lasted seconds, as a few moments into the piece, he was totally immersed in this music and the performance—focused, but not scared.

V. Ciaccona

Expressive, natural articulation, and careful, considerate dynamics and phrasing, well-shaped arches: a performance without austerity, with a tone devoid of sharpness / pointiness. Dramatic, resolute semiquavers (bars 65ff), as well as subtle, soft segments (bar 81ff). A well-matured performance, full of expression, not just virtuosity, nor light playfulness. I’m thinking of the arpeggio segment in bars 89ff. The cadenza-like bars 121 – 124 lead into the brief return of the initial bars that end the first D minor section. Here, the demisemiquaver figures had the appropriate weight, were proper ornaments / arabesques, neither superficial, nor too prominent.

The central “chorale-like” D major part started so infinitely gentle and soft, leading into a careful dynamic build-up—and once more I realized how well instrument, interpretation and acoustics teamed up in an ideal way, making me feel in heaven: thanks for a truly great moment!

In the second arpeggio segment which ends the D major section, the artist did a subtle decrescendo: the return of D minor was not sobering, but rather gentle, pensive, and considerate—a somewhat melancholic reminiscence, before the ascending figures in bars 225 / 226 initiated a controlled and gradual, final build-up, leading into the semidemiquaver arch of the final climax (bar 248) and the short recapitulation that ends the movement.
★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Conclusions

A truly excellent recital, mature and masterful! True, nothing is ever perfect, and I’m sure Sebastian Bohren’s performances are continuing to grow and evolve—but with this stellar interpretation of the famous Chaconne, the artist certainly consolidated his position in the top league of violinists!


Addendum: CD

As mentioned in the text above, the recording below is from 2017. It features performances on the artist’s previous instrument and will likely not reflect Sebastian Bohren’s current, more mature performances. I received this from the artist’s agent—the above comments don’t necessarily apply to the Partita No.2 (with the Chaconne) in this 2017 recording.

Sebastian Bohren — Bach: Sonatas and Partitas BWV 1004 - 1006 (CD cover)

J.S. Bach: Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004; Sonata No.3 in C major, BWV 1005; Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006

Sebastian Bohren, violin (1710 Stradivarius “King George”)

Sony Music / RCA Red Seal 19075836952 (CD stereo, ℗ / © 2018)
Booklet: 16pp., de/en/fr

Sebastian Bohren — Bach: Sonatas and Partitas BWV 1004 - 1006 (CD, UPC-A barcode))
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3 thoughts on “Sebastian Bohren — Solo Recital @ St.Peter, Zurich, 2020-06-28”

    • Yes, Tom — it really was! As I know the artist from several earlier concerts, my expectations were high — yet, the artist exceeded them …

      Reply

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