Cotik’s Passionate Bach

CD Cover

AwardBACH: Complete Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin / Tomás Cotik, vln / Centaur CRC 3755/56

Normally, I stay away from reviewing 95% of new recordings of old music for two specific reasons. Firstly, it is my experience that the very greatest performances of this repertoire has already been recorded, and for performer X to assume that his or her take on a particular work is going to outshine everyone from the past is more that a bit of hubris. But secondly, and particularly in the case of 18th and 19th-century music, so much of it has been ruined by the use of constant straight tone that it just makes me sick to listen to them.

But Argentinean violinist Tomás Cotik, who has actually made the violin sonatas of Mozart sound interesting (an almost superhuman feat, in my view) and breathed new life into the rather pedestrian music of Piazzola, is not just another violinist. He is a passionate musician who always seems to get under the skin of the music he performs, thus I was curious to hear his take on these sonatas and partitas.

My favorite recording of these works to date is the one by Mark Kaplan on Bridge. Kaplan unashamedly plays a modern violin and bow and uses a light, fast vibrato in sustained notes, which is right and proper. String players of the 18th and 19th centuries DID NOT use constant straight tone when they played. They used vibrato for sustained notes and straight tone for the faster passages because it was easier to negotiate them without vibrato. Listen to the recordings of such 19th-century violinists as Joachim and Sarasate if you don’t believe me. They also used a fairly broad portamento, something that modern musicians scorn like the plague, but if you’re going to be historically accurate, that’s how you should play. The one 20th-century violinist who came closest to earlier string players was Bronislaw Huberman, and it is exactly his use of portamento that modern string players find so offensive, but that’s the real deal, folks. If you’re going to throw out the baby, you may as well throw out the bath water.

Cotik plays here with a modern violin but a Baroque bow, which he finds gives him better control and flexibility in this music, but he does overdo the straight tone a bit more than I like. Thus, insofar as the sheer sound of the instrument goes, I prefer Kaplan to Cotik. One thing I noticed was that, either due to the bow, his use of straight tone, or both, Cotik’s playing has a bit more of a “rough-and-ready” sound to it than Kaplan.

But then there is the underlying shape and form of each piece in these six works and the motor rhythms of the fast pieces, and here Cotik scores over Kaplan. Every movement of each sonata and partita is played faster by Cotik. Of course, speed in and of itself means nothing, but despite my wishing that he would have used a bit more vibrato in his slow movements, I did not feel that Cotik ignored the feeling in those slow movements, and the faster movements are simply terrific. Just listen, for instance, to the fourth-movement “Presto” of the first sonata for an example of what I mean. Kaplan plays it with good energy and a lot of feeling, but in Cotik’s skilled hands the notes simply jump off the bow. Moreover, in those in-between movements like the “Allamanda” in the first partita, Cotik’s rhythmic feeling—though quite clearly influenced by 20th-century music such as jazz (though he is decidedly not a jazz violinist)—makes for a big difference in the shaping and “bounce” in every phrase. To my ears, it is entirely unique in the presentation of this music, which is (a few popular movements aside) not everyone’s favorite Bach. Cotik even adds a slight hesitation in the spaces between notes here and there, as if to point up the slightly offbeat swagger of the music at this point.

Moreover, he makes a completely different distinction between the rhythms in each of the quick movements, giving each one a specific character. The result, if I may be so bold to say so, is the give these Bach pieces a little bit of a Paganini-like feel to them. For some listeners, this may seem like a bit of showing-off, but for me there is no question but that this is the most exciting rendition of these works I’ve ever heard. Indeed, as the performance continued—about the time I reached the “Tempo de Borea” of the first partita—I had to stop playing the critic and simply marvel at this man’s energy and commitment to the music. His passion is infectious.

By playing this music with such rhythmic acuity and emotional directness, Cotik has also managed to make us hear the connections between each movement, which in turn pulls the movements together to form a cohesive musical whole. It’s like listening to Felix Weingartner conduct the Brahms symphonies, some movements of which always sound sprawling and a bit stodgy in the hands of others, suddenly have their structure jump out at you as you say to yourself, “Oh, so that’s what Brahms was doing!” He plays like a gypsy fiddler with a classical technique, and this is part of what makes these performances so exciting. Hear, for instance, how he phrases the lines and bounces the rhythms in the “Fuga” of the second sonata for an example of what I mean.

In a sense, however, his strong rhythms and gypsy-like attacks almost make the slow preludes sound superfluous. It’s not that he plays them without feeling—on the contrary, he gives them just the right feel—but more that you feel a tad impatient, waiting for them to be over so he can thrill you with the faster movements. Is this a bad thing? You decide. I found myself mesmerized by what he has to offer in this music. In the “Andante” of the second sonata, for instance, you become hypnotized by the way he accentuates the lower-register accompaniment to his own playing, making it sound less like a series of droning sounds than like the “push” of a bowed jazz bassist, rhythmically speaking. To reiterate, it’s the way a gypsy violinist, not a classical purist, would play them. Mind you, I still wish he had used some vibrato in those slow movements, which is not only historically but musically correct, but what the heck.

For the curious, the first violinist to record these pieces using a Baroque bow was Sigiswald Kuijken, way back in the 1980s. His was, for me, the touchstone set of these works for many years despite his use of straight tone. Then along came Kaplan to completely change my viewpoint. Although I still prefer Kaplan’s less scrappy tone in the slow preludes, this is now my benchmark performance of these works. You’ve simply got to get them!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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