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 Treatises Sources, Numerology and the Doctrine of Affections. This week he focuses on Traditions and Musical Lineage, ‘Interpretation’ and Performance Environment.



Traditions and Musical Lineage

The earliest known recordings of these works are a couple of movements by Joseph Joachim, the teacher of the teacher of the teacher of my teachers. Yet there is only so much lineage that we can draw from in hopes that performance practice knowledge is faithfully passed from generation to generation. Let’s not forget that Bach’s music stop being performed until Mendelssohn’s and Schumann’s revival.






The recording of Joachim has little vibrato, some ornamental additions, uneven time, and a certain feeling of tempo rubato. That’s not the message we get a few generations later from “modern violinists.” Let’s keep in mind that different students from the same teacher back then and now play differently and that it is difficult to differentiate between a “Romantic” versus a “Baroque” tempo rubato. Traditions and fashions often have interesting lives of their own.





It is also important to point out that the word “interpretation” in relation to music performance only started being used around 1840. In his article, ‘Beyond the Interpretation of Music,’ Laurence Dreyfus explores its meaning and how different composers/performers held divergent opinions on the role of the performer. His findings are summarized in the table below:




QuantzPlayers are executants or implementers of music […]. Instead of telling us what the music means, players were charged with observing rules of propriety and good taste […].

C.P.E. Bach

The player must first be moved by the work’s passions to be able to then move the listener, “whom he helps to understand his intentions to the extent of reasonably communicating, with his face and body, the gestures…of the piece.”


Musical sincerity is especially important: “playing all the notes…exactly as they are written and with the appropriate expression and taste, so that you might suppose the executor composed it himself.”


Musicians…assert their artistry by faithful reproduction, and arbitrary alterations result in a primitive form of defacement […].


“When I play something by Beethoven, I feel scarcely any of my individuality; instead, I’ve enough to do trying to render…as well as I can what [the composer] has prescribed…in the piece.”


The performer should strive to lose himself, heart and soul in the spirit of the artwork he is reproducing […], and through the medium of his own deep artistic feeling, to reproduce it to the listener in its full purity and beauty.


Intuition and empathy should be employed to decipher intentions lying behind the musical notation.


“One tradition only do I recognize – that it is the function of the artist to enter in the spirit of a composition, and reveal to us the intentions of the composer. The musical message of the composer, the true spirit of his inspiration, the soul of his music – that is what we are interested in.”

HIP Movement

Musicology immediately encroached upon areas that had previously been the exclusive province of performing musicians […], giving the performer the recourse to a far more objective authority: that of History itself […], and [liberating him/her] from the very sloppiness of musical traditions and their authority.

 I appreciate, and can relate to, many of these contrasting ideas.




Performance Environment and Recording


There are practical considerations that come into play that force us to make alterations independent of our approach or interpretation. We need to adapt to the halls in which we perform immediately upon hearing the sound.


Similarly, the circumstances of the recording process can influence our performance. In fact, making a recording seems to go against of the very idea of a historical interpretation. Back then, as now, an interpretation varies from performance to performance. This statement is even more accurate if we add into account possible spontaneous improvisations. The fact that a recording is listened to repeatedly makes me try to create an interpretation that withstands this fact. I would get tired of listening to extreme rubato or any other mannerism over and over again. Certain idiosyncrasies that could enhance a live performance can get old very quickly upon repeated listening. Another consideration is the reaction of microphones at 5 feet versus playing for an audience sitting out in a hall. We also have yet to take into account that no historical standards can be applied to recording technology.




Next week, Tomás Cotik concentrates on Classification