“When I perform Bach’s Chaconne, I feel as if I have been given a rare glimpse over the edge.”
For the third time, violinist Liza Ferschtman will enter into a dialogue with Johann Sebastian Bach. In Utrecht, The Hague (at Classical NOW!) and London, she will perform his Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato, better known as the 6 Sonatas & Partitas for solo violin. For Bach, man was created in the image of God. For this reason he signed his compositions Soli Deo Gloria (‘Glory be to God alone’). This phrase reflects his belief that one can connect with the Creator through music. According to Goethe, all of Bach’s music sounds “as if the eternal harmony were talking to itself”. Ferschtman agrees and explains what Bach’s 6 Sonatas & Partitas mean to her.
In search of perfection
You are now beginning your third cycle of the 6 Sonatas & Partitas. What is it about this music that fascinates you so much and will you continue to work on it 'forever'?
'To answer the second question right away : Yes ! Is it a fascination ? No, not even that per se, you just know and feel that there is always more to discover. Your perspective also changes. YYour taste evolves and your sense of tempo changes over the years. This is true of all good music, of course. But the special thing about Bach's solo works is that you can create music on your own that is so incredibly complete. Even more so in the polyphonic parts. It's great to be able to control the intonation yourself, as if you were a pianist or a string quartet. The possibilities are endless. In no other series of solo works is this the case. For example, in the 6 Sonatas opus 27 by Ysaÿe, I sometimes try to take apart the double stops in order to follow the voicing, but this is far from always logical and correct. I still find this a little disappointing. With Bach, everything is always perfect.'
When did you first play Bach's Sonatas & Partitas and what has changed in the way you approach these pieces since then?
'I played the Prelude in E major first, I must have been about 11 or 12. When I was sixteen, I added the Sonata in G minor. Certainly the change over the years has been great. Apart from the fact that, as a child, one's technique and experience are usually somewhat limited, I still came from the 'romantic' violin school. I remember being 16 and thinking that someone like the baroque violinist Sigiswald Kuijken sounded ridiculous. Now I myself have moved much more in the direction of authentic performance practice.'
Which musicians have you studied with to learn more about Bach's music?
'The first person to open my ears was the recorder player Walter van Hauwe. When I was about 20 years old, as someone who didn’t think like a string player, he showed me how there could be more fun and rhetoric in Bach’s music. He taught me that vibrato was not something to be taken for granted, but something to be put to good use. That was a major turning point. Around the same time, Rachel Podger released her Sonatas & Partitas on CD, which also gave me a new perspective. But I still had a long way to go. Some time later, about ten or eleven years ago, I began to play for Anner Bijlsma, which set everything in motion even more. The ‘speaking’ in music became much more of a goal. His book on Bach’s Senza Basso also gave me incredible tools. You can get wonderfully lost in certain details in that book. Bijlsma sometimes goes very far in interpreting every just-not-hundred-percent-finished bow in the facsimile of the Sonatas & Partitas, but it creates even more possibilities in the endless search. I also worked with baroque violinist Lucy van Dael, which helped me too!'
You call yourself a 'hybrid violinist'. Gradually you switched to a baroque bow and perhaps gut strings. You also opt for an extra low tuning. Why?
' A baroque bow helps with articulation and gives more freedom of movement. It is simply not made to facilitate a long, lilting line, as the modern bow tends to do. Certain other aspects of a more ‘authentic’ style are also easier with a baroque bow. But I still occasionally play Bach with a modern bow. Getting the polyphony out of it is not necessarily a matter of the bow; I have learnt that it is something that you have to know and hear incredibly well yourself, only then will you be able to pass it on to the listener. I learned this from Sokolov when I heard him play a Bach Partita in the Great Hall of the Concertgebouw and the piano sounded so extraordinarily in stereo. I had never experienced anything like that before. That made me realise that it was the power of his inner ear - in addition to his incredible piano technique, of course. Thanks to Sololov’s inner ear, it could be so bright!
There is no golden rule when it comes to tuning. Apparently the organs in Köthen were tuned to about 440, so it is not at all necessary to play at 415, but I like it on my ‘modern’ tuned Guarneri to get extra relaxation in the sound with a low tuning. It helps me. At the moment I don’t play Bach exclusively on gut because I have too much other repertoire to play in between. In this case the low tuning gives me just that little bit more ‘authentic’ sound. In fact, over the years I have become a big fan of the gut sound.'
Ultimately, should Bach 'sing' or 'speak' or 'dance', and how do you feel about vibrato and other freedoms (rubato, region, accents, etc) ? Is there room for 'improvisation' ? And why do you play this music with Bach's original manuscript on your music stand ?
'There is certainly a 'singing' Bach, but in the Sonatas & Partitas, 'speaking' has become the most important thing for me. Apart from dancing, as far as the Partitas composed of dance parts are concerned. Vibrato, even in romantic or modern style, should be something we don't use on autopilot. That's actually the most important thing, that it always starts with the sound that the bow takes out of the instrument and then vibrato can augment that tone where necessary. For extra expression. Improvisation in the sense of adding embellishments to repetitions is certainly possible with Bach, there is absolutely room for it. The fact that I always play from the manuscript is due to Bijlsma, who said that it brings you closer to the man and his music. Also because Bach's music is, as I said, a treasure that keeps on giving, there is always something new to discover. I can't go back!'
You often talk about Bach's 'secrets' in this music. Can you give some examples of that ?
'This question relates to what Helga Thoene, among others, is concerned with. She believes that the Chaconne is an In Memoriam for Bach's first wife, who died while he was travelling. According to her, it contains allusions to chorales from his cantatas. I find it very interesting, but don't concern myself much with it.'
Bach said : 'The aim and deepest reason of every piece of music should be nothing but the glory of God and the purgation of the spirit. If you do not honour God with His music, music is only a devilish noise.' Do you experience the same way? Goethe said Bach's music sounds 'as if die ewige Harmonie sich mit sichselbst unterhielte.' Raphael Pichon says : 'I am religious because I believe in Bach.' What about you ?
'I'm of the Goethe movement ... Religion I don't find in it. As I perform Bach's Chaconne, I feel as though I am given a rare glimpse over the edge.'
How important is the order in which you play these pieces ? The last time I heard you you did a Sonata in three blocks and then a Partita ... Do you always do that?
'In 2013, the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ asked me to do the complete set, which would be performed on two evenings. It seemed like an impossible task, but I said yes anyway... In preparation, I played the entire set twice in one evening, and then I felt that this gave the most beautiful curve of tension. Exactly in the order Bach originally wrote it down. The centre of gravity in the middle, with the Sonata in A minor and the Partita in D minor, with the Chaconne as a dramatic climax. Then the music moves back towards the light with the Sonata in C major and the Partita in E major. These really work as a catharsis. It's quite a tour de force, but somehow I find that original arc of tension with the pauses, together with the audience, is really very meaningful and beautiful. When I 'only' play a selection from the cycle, the ideal order is always a bit of a search. Sometimes I still vary it. The movements are all equally dear to me in a way, although the first Partita is a bit crazy, I find it so beautiful, a bit sad or nostalgic, but somehow it is always difficult for the audience, just too abstract apparently.'
Bach himself played the violin 'neatly and penetratingly' according to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. He knew Biber and Von Westhoff, who wrote similar pieces for solo violin. Can you imagine what Bach must have sounded like in this music, which was soon known as the best school of learning for violinists ? Would he have seen the pieces as 'exercises' or more as an outlet for all his intelligence and emotion ?
'I don't know enough about that ... But I can hardly imagine that it was only exercise, although in the fugues he worked so masterfully in terms of voicing that it must have given him satisfaction on a technical composition level too!'
According to Helga Thoene, the Chaconne is full of chorale quotations. Others recognise all kinds of numerical relationships and others kabbalistic and mystical things in this music. Do you believe in it and do you engage with it ? Does it enrich your experience of the S&P ?
'I have Thoene’s books. They are not fun to read, far too complicated. But the ‘discovery’ of the parallels with the chorales in the Chaconne is something special. It supports the theory that Bach wrote the Chaconne as a requiem for his first wife. And the opportunity, thanks to Thoene, to perform the Chaconne with five additional singers is truly spectacular. I had the opportunity to do this with the Hilliard Ensemble in its final year. I came across it through the Morimur CD they had recorded with Christophe Poppen. I will never forget this experience! I will always carry the sound of the singers with me when I play the Chaconne.'
This interview previously appeared in the magazine De Nieuwe Muze.