Violinist Thomas Zehetmair has recorded the solo sonatas and partitas of J S Bach, Sei Solo – Johann Sebastian Bach The Sonatas and Partitas, to be released on the ECM New Series label on 15 November.
Composed three centuries ago, Johann Sebastian Bach’s set of six works for solo violin stands as one of the holy grails of violin literature. Zehetmair now gives his own account of this music, revisiting the repertoire on violins from Bach’s time.
Zehetmair is an extraordinary violinist who has played the big concertos, chamber music and new repertory. He has also found an extra calling as a conductor, channelling this varied experience into his return to the formidable cornerstone of Bach’s solo masterpieces.
Zehetmair was a member of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s period ensemble, working with him to prepare for his first recording of the sonatas and partitas on a modern instrument. For this new recording, he draws out exquisite colours from two violins from Bach’s lifetime, both of them by masters in the German tradition. With these old instruments, Zehetmair expresses a modern sensibility: alert and edgy. His performance engages with the superb acoustic of the priory church of St Gerold, in Austria where so many legendary ECM recordings have been made.
Born in Salzburg, Thomas Zehetmair made his debut at the Salzburg Festival when he was sixteen and started out as a recording artist the following year, recording Mozart’s Concerto in B flat (which Mozart wrote at the same age). A first recording of the Bach solo works followed in 1983, when he was twenty-one.
By the mid-1990s he had recorded much of the mainstream violin repertory, but his interests in chamber music were already blossoming. He founded his own string quartet in 1994, with his wife violist Ruth Killius. The quartet made it a habit to perform all works from memory – even difficult contemporary ones – and to concentrate on just one program per season. For ECM they have recorded quartets by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Bartók, Schumann, Hindemith and Beethoven.
Zehetmair has also formed other long-lasting partnerships, notably with Heinz Holliger, with whom he took part in a ground-breaking recording of sonatas by Jan Dismas Zelenka. And it was for Zehetmair that Holliger wrote his Violin Concerto in 1993-5, and the two have collaborated on recordings of the composer’s chamber music, all documented by ECM New Series.
From working occasionally with chamber orchestras, Zehetmair moved on in 2002 to a commitment as music director to the Northern Sinfonia, based in north-east England. He stayed with them for twelve seasons, forming connections also with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Musikkollegium Winterthur. Earlier this year he began a tenure with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra.