Ahead of his 2020 album release of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, the violinist continues his blog series, in which he discusses the contradictions between the opposing trends and traditions in Bach interpretation, and his personal solutions to them

In last week’s instalment, Tomás Cotik discussed Traditions and Musical Lineage, ‘Interpretation’ and Performance Environment. This week he focuses on Classification

We haven’t yet touched on the overwhelming authority of the composer. As musicians, we are often intrigued and mysticized by the fact that there is so much we don’t know and by our reverence to the authority of the long-dead composer.  But, does the composer think about every single aspect of performance? Does the composer (even if he/she was a performer) have the best practical solutions to technical mastery and interpretation? When do we, as interpreters, take authority?

I have shared some of my current (perhaps simplified) thoughts and decisions in performing these works. So, getting back to where we started: What is my approach? Is it ‘hip’ in the sense of a fashionable, new crossover approach? Is it a Historically Informed Performance? Or should the ‘I’ stand for one of these?


One answer that might offer a bit of solace can be found in an article that I found a short while ago, after having recorded the set.  

In her article, ‘Analyzing Difference in Recordings of Bach’s Violin Solos with a Lead from Gilles Deleuze,’ Dorottya Fabian describes the idea of characterizing Bach interpretations into three categories of performers and analyses performance parameters (such as articulation, rhythm,  bowing, tempo, timing, ornamentation, tone production, vibrato, and phrasing) in the recordings of each group.

Fabian differentiates according to the following categories: the ‘Romantic Modernist’ (RMP), the ‘Literalist, or Classical-Modernist’ (CMP), and ‘Historically-Informed Performance’ (HIP). RMP interpreters hold a reverential image of Bach as a composer of works for the church. Their approach sounds ponderous, sustained, and slow-moving (e.g. Heifetz, Menuhin, Perlman, Hahn, Ehnes, Fischer and Khachatryan).

Conversely, CMP interpreters strip away romantic elements from the music and reduce emotional excesses by emphasizing repetitive motor rhythms, taking fast, steady tempos, and playing with an even vibrato and little ornamentation (e.g. Milstein, Grumiaux, Jaap Schröder, and Sigiswald Kuijken in between).

Finally, HIP recordings are characterized by the study archival sources (e.g. treatises), grounding in harmony rather than in melody, flexible rhythms/tempo, short, lifted bow strokes and rapid note decay (e.g. van Dael, Huggett, Montanari, and Luca).

The examining of the different recordings shows that hardly any one interpretation fits perfectly in the theorized categories. Countless problems of classification emerge, indicating constantly shifting, transforming, and evolving stylistic territories that ‘mix and match various performance elements in diverse combinations and degrees.’

Fabian leaves behind the belief that the score is the work and instead acknowledges that we, as well as the artworks, are multiplicities. Employing a ‘Deluzian’ conceptual framework, which eludes categorical or normative thinking and binary opposites (spontaneous flexibility vs. literal consistency, HIP vs. mainstream, etc.), Fabian comes to the conclusion that more than one thing can be true at once, and that there exists a constantly transforming process in the interpretation of these works.

My/our interpretation cannot be an authentic recreation, nor does it attempt to be. Studying the work and the documents surrounding it is just the launch pad needed to start any trip. There doesn’t need to be a divide between the musicians who adhere to HIP and the ones who identify as “modern” players. Putting our interpretation into a box and labeling it is problematic.

It’s a long journey, and I stand by the idea that our interpretation changes along the way. Curiosity as inspiration and the pursuit of lifelong learning is what hopefully remains constant, and what I try to pass on to my students.

Next week, Cotik concludes his series on interpreting Bach