Thomas Zehetmair: Sei Solo (ECM New Series 2551/52)

2551|52 X

Thomas Zehetmair
Sei Solo

Thomas Zehetmair Baroque violin
Recorded August 2016, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Hannelore Guittet
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 15, 2019

The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo, inked by Johann Sebastian Bach under the trim title of Sei Solo (pseudo-Italian for “Six Solos”), are often lumped among his “secular” instrumental works, albeit as the crowning achievement of their kind. Yet they are every bit as spiritual as his cantatas and just as glorious in their ability to activate metaphysical particles in the listener. That said, they are more than illustratively hagiographic, for they are their own acts of transcendence.

We know little of the genesis of the Sei Solo, though Bach was accomplished enough as a violinist that he would have possessed requisite understanding of the instrument’s inner life to write them. And where some violinists—wittingly or not—take to obscuring the bodywork required of the interpreter, Thomas Zehetmair broke new ground in this regard with his recording for Telefunken in 1983. Said recording came to me by way of Teldec’s 1992 reissue (which I purchased on CD after wearing out my vinyl copy) and has been my benchmark ever since. Only later, once I saw that Zehetmair was being featured on an increasing number of ECM productions, including accounts of the solo works of Eugène Ysaÿe and Niccolò Paganini, and especially in light of ECM’s other takes on the Sei Solo by John Holloway and Gidon Kremer, I hoped he might one day think to revisit Bach’s masterworks. Imagine my elation when I saw the press release for this recording in my inbox. It was eminently worth the wait.

Now playing on period instruments that, by sheer coincidence, date from Bach’s birth and death years of 1685 and 1750 (along with two bows from around 1720) and recording in the priory of St. Gerold, a location known well by ECM aficionados as a favorite of the Hilliard Ensemble, Zehetmair brings more than thirty years of bonus experience to these personal interpretations.

Zehetmair’s use of gut strings, combined with the immediacy of playing without a shoulder rest, is palpable. As before, he eschews demonstrative pitfalls, lets endings exhale, and understands the architecture inherent to each movement, but this time brings the wisdom of life itself to bear on music that is, too, life itself. His ornamentation has grown in both detail and control—drawing from within rather than adding from without—and emphasizes the importance of reflective surfaces to give light meaning.

The Sonata No. 1 in G minor moves across his strings with the grandest of gestures, as if in that very sweep he describes the fullness of an entire village with all the histories, triumphs, and tragedies it has seen. Standing in the center of that village is a church where Bach himself can be seen praying for a world that is increasingly turning its ears away from the beauty it was designed to preserve. The initial effect is so inwardly focused that when extroversions like the Allegro emerge, they do so with light in their grasp. Zehetmair’s pacing is as magnificent as it is organic, swimming with the currents of time as a fish fearing neither hook nor net. His dynamics are also noteworthy, holding back with artful righteousness. Even in the briefer Siciliana, he ensures that every note has its say among a congregation of voices lifted high. Even the urgency conveyed in the final Presto is tempered by faith. Its balance of legato and rhythmic scraping is crepuscular.

The Allemanda that opens the Partita No. 1 in B minor is one of the most heroic passages of the entire collection (and, incidentally, where Zehetmair began the first recording). It is rendered here like an erratic brush painting. In moving through its narrative, cycling back to its repeat mark as if to confirm a memory before leaving it behind, Zehetmair allows previously glossed-over double stops to resonate a touch longer, speaking in a voice that can only resonate through hair and string. He plays the Double with such grace as to be its own hymn; the Corrente likewise. The Sarabande and its own double are hauntingly exquisite, as is the Tempo di Borea, which dances its way through the heart as if it were a springboard into doctrinal truth.

As Stanley Ritchie writes in his book on interpretations of the Sei Solo: “There is no such thing as ‘unaccompanied’ Bach.” This statement, I imagine, refers not only to the fact that the violinist must have an intuitive command of multiple strings and arpeggios (the connections of which bleed richly into one another in St. Gerold’s acoustics), but also to the music’s own self-referentiality. The Grave that begins the Sonata No. 2 in A minor, for instance, is certainly a ghost of the Allemanda that began the preceding Partita, and sets up the Fuga as if it were a closing statement from a pulpit. But then the tenderness of the Andante weaves its threads like a shroud for a glorified body and prepares to receive the sacrament of the final Allegro. Played at an initially conservative tempo, it escalates—as the flesh is wont to do—in abandonment of a rhythmic ideal, shifting from one phase to the next as if each were born of its own tempo.

The Allemanda of the Partita No. 2 in D minor breaks the chain of its cousins and forms a more rounded and contemplative sonic sculpture. Jumping over to the Giga, we encounter another wonder of the arpeggio in its ability to converse with itself. All of which brings us to the mighty Ciaccona. Despite taking on a life of its own as a self-contained performance piece, it is best heard in context. Zehetmair’s bowing comes across with sentience, as if compelled to communicate by something far more powerful than words: namely, melody. So, too, must we read carefully the Adagio opening the Sonata No. 3 in C major that follows as a continuation of that restless fatigue, and the organ-like Fuga that follows it as the beginning of a revival taken to fullness of joy in the concluding Allegro assai. What the exuberant Preludio of the Partita No. 3 in E major lacks in duration it makes up for in Zehetmair’s purity of interpretation. His mixture of the royal and the rustic is uniquely his own, as is true also of the Gavotte. And because the two Menuets feel like such snapshots out of time, the final Bourrée and Gigue are surely recreations of the past.

For me, at least, the bar has been set even higher by the one who placed it there to begin with. In so doing, Zehetmair has left us with a document unlike any other. The transformation he has undergone in a matter of decades—the same to which we are granted access over the span of two CDs—puts me in mind of Verses 1-7 from Psalm 102:

Hear my prayer, O LORD, and let my cry come unto thee. Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily. For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth. My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin. I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert. I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.

So, too, does the lone instrument gaze upon the world from its vantage point, waiting for grace to show itself. But one also knows that goodness is never far behind wherever evil treads, and that divine protection is ours for the taking because it is offered freely against enemies whose melodies reign dissonant and unsweet. Bach gives one such set of armor, and here it has been tempered to mirror shine.

Thomas Zehetmair: Robert Schumann (ECM New Series 2396)

Zehetmair Schumann

Robert Schumann

Thomas Zehetmair violin, direction
Orchestre de chambre de Paris
Recorded February 2014, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
Tonmeister: Hannelore Gurtet
Recording supervision: Guido Gorna
Engineer: Frédéric Briant
An ECM Production
Release date: March 18, 2016

The music of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) has slowly coalesced on ECM’s New Series into a poetic genre all its own. In the capable hands of violinist Thomas Zehetmair, who rendered the labyrinthine depths of the German composer’s string quartets in equal parts crystal and shadow, and here conducting the Orchestre de chambre de Paris in an even more dynamic program, it has taken on new life.


For the Violin Concerto of 1853, Zehetmair plays from an Urtext edition to which he himself made important contributions, poring laboriously over the original manuscript to correct the piece’s many errors and elevate it to its deserved status in the pantheon of violin literature. The first movement is almost a concerto in and of itself, moving with the force of an ocean wave crashing on shore. The second movement is emblematic of its composer’s flair for merging strength and delicacy, and of the soloist’s ability to balance the two with artful resonance. As he and the orchestra leap into the final stretch with elasticity, we find ourselves nearly overwhelmed by invention. Few concertos feel as corporeal as this, seeming to pull on every tendon and sinew until it trembles with joy. Although originally thought unplayable by violinist Joseph Joachim (for whom it was written) and Clara Schumann, and never heard until 1937, this recording lends it a resplendent inevitability. Zehetmair’s direction is as vibrant as his playing, and in both one finds an abundance of insight.

The Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”), op. 38, of 1841 emerged only after many failed attempts, and in its present iteration abounds with Beethovenian exuberance, but always with that indefinable touch for which Schumann was so highly regarded. The programmatic flair of the first and fourth movements, in combination with the robust exposition between them, articulates a timeless pastoralism in concise terms. It’s an atmosphere rightly shared by the Phantasy for Violin and Orchestra, op. 131, of 1853. It brilliantly concludes the program, funneling every impulse that preceded it into a flourishing ecosystem of ideas. Ironically enough, in this rendering it feels more reflective of reality than the preceding two works, if only by virtue of its fiery exegesis. Zehetmair brings his all to the table, leaving not a single crumb to show for it.

The engineering is appropriately raw and clear—so clear, in fact, that a page turn is audible in the right channel in the first movement of the Violin Concerto—and allows us to feel immersed but never assaulted.

Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonates pour violon solo – Zehetmair (ECM New Series 1835)


Eugène Ysaÿe
Sonates pour violon solo

Thomas Zehetmair violin
Recorded September 2002 at Propstei St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

While I continue to wait—in vain, it seems—for a Thomas Zehetmair redux of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin on ECM, we do have, in this touchstone recording of EugèneYsaÿe’s comparable works for the same, easily one of the most enthralling albums to come from the repertoire in a long while. Composed between 1923 and 1924, Ysaÿe’s constructions emerged from a dearth of provocative solo violin literature to which his contributions were more than ornaments and seem as much predecessors as descendents of Bach (as if Bach had anticipatorily extracted from their less contestable passages a more concentrated form of solitude). If Bach’s is a perfect fruit, gilded by two centuries’ of difference, then Ysaÿe’s is both the soil that feeds it and nourishes its seeds, slumbering beneath a layer of frost in the morning sun.

The Grave of the Sonata No. 1 in G minor opens the set with a calligraphic flourish in reverse, funneling fanciful implications into an originary stroke. From these stirrings one already senses the many layers of historicity at work here. In the Fugato we encounter the sinewy balance of robustness and grace that infuses the performance as a whole, which glides off of Zehetmair’s bow like liquid mercury, those double stops seeming to come from a single string divided, opened rather than paralleled. His flexibility works wonders in the Allegretto, contrasting serrated runs with more amorphous shapes, before unwrapping its sweetest virtuosities in the Finale. This tour de force is on par with any of the Paganini caprices and again showcases the powerful subtleties of Zehetmair’s unparalleled (no pun intended) double stops.

The first movement of the Sonata No. 2 in A minor, appropriately titled “Obsession,” is many things to the Preludio of Bach’s Partita No. 3: fragmentation, recapitulation, homage, and parody, to name a few. Like two galaxies shuffled together, these monumental signatures share more than a few loops and hooks, exhaling nebulae on the muted strings of “Malinconia.” This call from distant shores is an afterlife brought into the continental drift of shadows. A lute-like interlude brings us to the ecstatic exposition that “Les furies,” from which Paul Giger draws (at 0:42) an intertextual marker in Chartres (listen for it in “Crossing”).

This distinct sense of exuberant introversion continues in the Sonata No. 3 in D minor (“Ballade”), the nuances of which we were given a taste alongside Heinz Holliger’s Violinkonzert. Thus do we bridge over into the Sonata No. 4 in E minor, which nods again in Paganini’s direction. Its tripartite structure cradles a languid Sarabande, after which the enthralling Finale—during which there hardly seems a moment when at least two strings are not being engaged—closes the most notoriously demanding piece of the set.

The movements pare down one by one, giving us the diptych of the Sonata No. 5 in G major. Equal parts Debussean ritual and imageless reflection, it concludes in a sensuous dance filled with avian throatedness. So, too, do the flying swoops of the single-movement Sonata No. 6 in E major regale us with songs of clouds and earth alike.

With a tone deferential yet trailblazing, Zehetmair captures and sets free the genetic codes enraptured by and through these sonatas. I cannot imagine a more ideal performer, or more ideal acoustics than the crisp reverberations of Austria’s Propstei St. Gerold. Every finger seems to rotate on its own axis in the grander solar system of Zehetmair’s playing, at the center of which shines the sun of Ysaÿe’s glorious music. Each planet is of such distinct character that as a family they seem to inhabit their own respective universes, meeting only in the aftermath of a binding cataclysm, which necessitates the retelling of their lost cultures. Picking through this referential hall of mirrors, we see exactly what we hear: a spontaneous recreation.

Camerata Bern/Zehetmair: Verklärte Nacht (ECM New Series 1714)


Thomas Zehetmair
Camerata Bern
Verklärte Nacht

Thomas Zehetmair violin and director
Camerata Bern
Recorded 1999 at Radio DRS, Zurich; 1995 at Salle de Musique, LaChaux-de-Fonds
Engineer: Bernd Runge and Eberhard Hinz
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Splendour falls on everything around,
you are voyaging with me on a cold sea,
but there is the glow of an inner warmth
from you in me, from me in you.
–Richard Dehmel, “Transfigured Night” (trans. Mary Whittall)

It’s difficult to believe that the first performance of Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) in 1901 incited a riot, prompting one critic to report, “It sounds as if someone had smudged the score of Tristan while it was still wet.” Structured as it is around the eponymous poem by Richard Dehmel, in which two lovers test their resolve while wandering in moonlight, the gossamer threads of night are its makeup. Along with The Book of the Hanging Gardens, it is one of the composer’s most visceral works. Not easy listening, to be sure, but nothing worth coming to blows over, either. Its lyrical chromaticism is lush yet opaque and descriptive to the core. Its contours slowly come into focus like a whale from a dark sea, Zehetmair’s violin waiting along with the seagulls for any morsels to escape from its yawning food trap. The Camerata Bern pays strictest attention to rhythm, caressing every beat with its strings. Though branded as a nocturnal affair, the piece also resounds with light. Certain sections sound like a magnified string quartet, while others breathe with the lung capacity of a full orchestra, but always with characteristic insulation. Like Wagner at his most self-effacing, Schönberg emotes with high narrative volume, as though a ballet and an opera had been stripped of words and collapsed into this one glorious whole.

After a glassy stillness that leaves us transfigured ourselves, the Four Transylvanian Dances of Sándor Veress pull us to our marionetted feet with spirited urgency. The second of these, with its finely wrought pizzicato beads, is notably heartwarming, while the fourth contrasts processional ceremony with outright exuberance. I can hardly imagine a better segue into Béla Bartók’s famed Divertimento (1939), of which the opening is perhaps the Hungarian’s most recognizable motif. Lower strings emerge as a major consonant force against the more adventurous uppers, which dance their way into the Adagio with infectious verve. The musicians’ dynamic control is on full alert here, as quiet restraint carries over into a cyclical swell of emotive power. The third and final movement is played to perfection. Its accentuating fingerboard slaps, solo cello, and open-stringed double stops stand out with scintillating clarity, all wrung through an imitative filter before ending with a pizzicato-friendly “micro-ballet.” The Divertimento, a more precise rendering of which I cannot recall, was the result of a commission by patron Paul Sacher, whose importance one can gauge further in ECM’s kaleidoscopic tribute album.

Verklärte Nacht scores another hit for Zehetmair, whose quartet album pairing Hartmann and Bartók made a concurrent appearance to equal acclaim. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have both on your shelf.

Zelenka: Trio Sonatas (ECM New Series 1671/72)


Jan Dismas Zelenka
Trio Sonatas

Heinz Holliger oboe
Maurice Bourgue oboe
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Klaus Thunemann bassoon
Klaus Stoll double-bass
Jonathan Rubin lute
Christiane Jaccottet harpsichord
Recorded June 1997, La Chaux-de-Fonds
Engineer: Stephen Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

From the first measure to the last, the trio sonatas of Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) cast an enchanting spell. The combination of instruments—two oboes, bassoon, and basso continuo, with a violin replacing an oboe in the third sonata—is unique and colorful. Zelenka’s writing embodies the epitome of Baroque ensemble stylistics, drawing from such diverse influences as Bach and the folk music of his own homeland.

The first two sonatas I see as a linked pair. Sonata No. 1 is an awakening into sunrise, birds weaving and darting in a complex interplay of lilting motifs. Sonata No. 2 is the dusk to the first’s dawn. Its gorgeous introductory movement builds to Albinoni-like proportions. Meticulous development and smooth bassoon writing in the final Allegro make this one of the most consistent sonatas in the collection. Thomas Zehetmair takes charge in the sinuous opening Adagio of Sonata No. 3. A virtuosic second movement and ornamental minor shifts in the fourth lend this sonata an overall anticipatory character. The oboes return to the “fore” in Sonata No. 4, which features a heartrending bassoon line in the Adagio. And on that note, the trio sonatas are a goldmine for the bassoon. Though touted by Heinz Holliger as a highpoint of oboe literature that evolves with the performer through time, this collection brings out so much detail from the oboe’s throatier cousin that one cannot help but give it equal attention. Klaus Thunemann’s dramatic sense of diction is almost never supplementary, but rather flickers with its own inner fire. The bassoon is perhaps nowhere so present as in Sonata No. 5. After a thematic statement in tutti, Thunemann takes the reigns, leading us through an interludinal Adagio before enthralling yet again in the Allegro. The bassoon remains an integral presence in Sonata No. 6, threading the Andante that opens, bolstering the snake-like oboe solo of the Allegro, and carrying the full weight of another gorgeous Adagio. The concluding movement starts off daintily enough, but soon works its way into wild flights on oboe (the effect of which is not unlike the bursts of violin in the Adagio of Bach’s fourth Brandenburg Concerto), thus adding that much more emphatic punctuation to this ever-unfurling manuscript.

These pieces are like concerti grossi in miniature form, each its own massive universe compacted into a rather demanding form of chamber music. Holliger initiated a “Zelenka renaissance” when he first recorded these works for Archiv in 1972, and manages to outdo even himself here in ECM’s praiseworthy production. The acoustics manage to bring out the earthiness of the bassoon, the glitter of the continuo, and the complexity of the oboe with nuanced attention. The click of oboe keys is pleasantly audible and only serves to underline the rhythmic backbone of the music.

Not since Bach had a composer taken the raw material of counterpoint and fashioned it into something beyond its own means. We know very little of Zelenka. Not even a portrait remains to show us his face. And yet, when we don our musical lenses and peer into the gems he left behind, we know that in his creations we have something far greater than a few strokes of cracked paint on a time-worn canvas could ever convey. One can only hope that this revival of a revival, combined with the tireless efforts of such Zelenka proponents as Wolfgang Reich and Holliger himself, will continue to polish away the centuries of neglect from this nearly forgotten Baroque treasure.

Paganini: 24 Capricci – Zehetmair (ECM New Series 2124)


Niccolò Paganini
24 Capricci

Thomas Zehetmair violin
Recorded December 2007, Monastery of St. Gerold, Austria

The 24 Caprices for Solo Violin by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) will forever be the Italian composer’s most vivid mark left on the classical landscape. Born in Genoa, Paganini grew to fame through a rigorous touring schedule and established himself as one of the leading violinists of his generation. Chronic illness, coupled with his promiscuous lifestyle and ill-conceived treatment for a bout of syphilis in 1822, contributed greatly to his physical decline, finally catching up with him in a state of destitution. His incendiary technical prowess and eccentric compositions were such that some believed him to be in commiseration with the Devil, hence the sometimes outlandish nicknames appended to certain high points of his oeuvre. Despite his seemingly sensational life, Paganini’s music is the most immediate medium through which to communicate with this mythical figure of violinry. And what better way to experience it than in the chameleonic grip of Austrian virtuoso Thomas Zehetmair in the gorgeous acoustics of the Monastery of St. Gerold, and all under ECM’s prudent gaze.

Here’s a violinist who isn’t afraid to tear through the crunchy layer of No. 1 with the ravenous abandon of a starving beast.The throaty call of No. 3 turns to liquid gold in his hands, and No. 5, with its astonishing runs up and down the fingerboard, is nothing short of enthralling. The otherworldly trills of No. 6, dramatic leaps to the violin’s most piercing registers in No. 7, swaying double stops in No. 8, and deftly executed harmonics of No. 9 all bring a feverish improvisatory fervor to the fore. No. 10 runs like a deer that has escaped the hunt that preceded it. No. 13, known as “Devil’s Laughter,” enchants with its mockery. Zehetmair displays an uncanny grasp of the technical demands at hand: the triple and even quadruple stops of No. 14 fly of his bow with the ease of a practice scale, and the détaché-laden No. 16 dazzles with its speed and fluid execution of the challenging octaves in the middle section. No. 17 is like a conversation between a highly agitated provocateur and two twins in agreement, while the lilting double stops of No. 21 cry out with unparalleled desire. And then there is No. 24. Perhaps the pinnacle of Paganini’s entire output and often believed one of the most difficult pieces ever conceived for the instrument, it has been taken up by a host of composers and performers, including such diverse talents as Yngwie Malmsteen, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Eliot Fisk, and Benny Goodman. Throughout its compact four minutes, Zehetmar blasts through eleven variations of its opening theme, plus a finale. His handling of the notorious pizzicato passage is particularly noteworthy in this relatively straightforward rendering. While there are more somber invocations to be had—such as those of Nos. 2, 4, 11, and 20—they always seem to be usurped by Paganini’s penchant for the dramatic, exploited here to colorful effect and leaving us thoroughly out of breath by the time we reach the end.

Zehetmair has boldly taken the Caprices and peppered them with his own distinctive embellishments, a task akin to adding a hundred figures to a Bosch triptych: there just doesn’t seem to be any room for them. And yet, he pulls them off with such grace and gusto that I cannot help but smile at his achievement. Even so, he is quick to remind us these aren’t showpieces but “improvised character pieces” that speak to the depth of their creator’s musical reach. This, coupled with a belief in the authenticity of the moment, is woven into every fiber of Zehetmair’s bag of tricks. Only rarely do I use the word “definitive” to describe a recording, but in this case any other adjective seems inadequate.