Interview with Violinist Augustin Hadelich: Bach Sonatas and Partitas

April 20, 2021, 10:41 PM · I'm continually moved by the artistry, attention to detail and sheer beauty in Augustin Hadelich's violin playing, so when I learned he was releasing a recording of the entire J.S. Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, I was truly excited to hear his take on these works that stand at the heart of the violin repertoire.

The German-American violinist, who makes his home in the U.S., spent the pandemic not only practicing and recording Bach but also making copious videos -- 46 videos in an educational violin technique playlist called Ask Augustin, and 37 home performance videos for Hadelich at Home 2020. A winner of the Warner Prize in 2015 as well as a 2016 Grammy for his recording of Dutilleux's Violin Concerto, Augustin was also Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 2018.

That same year, Augustin released his exquisite recording of all 24 Paganini Caprices, notoriously difficult virtuoso works that challenge even the most accomplished violinists.

To record all the Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin is a similarly ambitious feat, and Augustin does not disappoint. The CD, released in early April, also contains a booklet with a thoughtful essay written by Augustin, as well as beautiful photos taken by his wife Suxiao Yang in the Italian countryside where Augustin grew up.

Augustin Hadelich
Violinist Augustin Hadelich. Photo by Suxiao Yang.

At first, I intended to listen to just the highlights - after all, this is a lot of music, with six multi-movement works for a total of 32 movements in all. But once I got going, I could't stop. I listened to all two hours and 12 minutes of this intensely emotional, intellectually satisfying and wicked-difficult violin playing, which he makes sound so straightforward and inevitable. What an accomplishment.

In these works, Bach pushes the violin to do the job of an entire ensemble, or perhaps a church organ -- to use its four strings to create both melody and harmony, and to sing in multiple voices. Augustin unfailingly makes sense of those many voices, enunciating them in clear and cohesive ways, despite the technical and frankly the intellectual challenges involved. These works span an immense emotional territory - grand and Godly one moment, then small and vulnerable the next.

And like the artist that sees the colors no one else notices, Augustin also brings out tiny moments of beauty -- never too much, just enough to make things shimmer. And the best part for me, was the end: Partita No. 3 - I don't think I've ever heard so much joy in this partita, particularly in the Gavotte.

A few weeks ago I spoke with Augustin about his new recording, about using a Baroque bow, about his ever-evolving take on the music and meaning of Bach.

"Right away, when the lockdown happened, I took out Bach and started playing it," Augustin said. He wasn't alone - many string players started playing solo Bach at that time because the music requires no accompaniment, making it the perfect music for isolation.

But Augustin had another big reason: he had always wanted to record the full works and he'd finally found "the right" Baroque bow and was excited to start playing with it. "I'd bought the bow maybe three years ago, and I hadn't had a chance to use it that much," Augustin said.

Before finding this particular bow, Augustin had felt discouraged about Baroque bows.

"I had always thought that the Baroque bow was so different from the modern bow that it would be like re-learning to play," he said. He'd formed that impression many years ago, when he tried a Baroque bow that was so short and light, it felt like a children's bow. In reality, though, "there's a huge amount of variation within various Baroque bows, in terms of length and weight and the way they handle. I think they differ much more than modern bows do. In fact, I think there might be a Baroque bow out there for everyone - it's a little bit like Harry Potter, finding the right wand!"

The person that helped him find that "right bow" was actually the violinist Julia Fischer. Several years ago, the two violinists were playing a tour of 10 concerts, with performances of the Bach Double Concerto, as well as Schnittke's Concerto Grosso No. 1.

"One day, she showed up with two Baroque bows," Augustin said. With characteristic spirit, "she sort of dared me, 'I'll use the Baroque bow if you use the Baroque bow...' So I said, 'Okay...'"

Suddenly, Augustin found himself playing a concert with a Baroque bow. "It's not the kind of thing I'd normally do, to just walk out with a different bow!" Augustin said. "But what amazed me was just how natural it felt - it felt just right for the music."

The bow was a 1730s model made with ironwood by German modern maker Rüdiger Pfau.

"(Julia) had two bows to try," Augustin said. "She had just bought one of them, and the other one was the one I tried. That one suited me better, so it worked out." He ended up buying that very bow. "It had a certain strength to it, and it had a similar length to a modern bow, it's only a tiny bit shorter. And it's of course lighter than my modern bow, but it had a certain sturdiness to it that made it easier to switch to."

Not only that, but the Baroque bow felt more intuitive to play, when it comes to something like Bach. It made a lot of things easier.

"What's wonderful about the feeling of the Baroque bow is that it has this buoyancy," Augustin said. "The bow wants to lift notes upward, at the end of the note. That gives the notes a certain bounce, and it makes it quite easy to create really great articulation in the dance movements of all the partitas. It almost happens on its own: all the little shapes are just right. On the modern-style bow, you have to imitate that. But the modern bow is designed specifically so that it doesn't lift, so that it sinks into the string. That's the whole point, why it's bent the other way, so that the weight will go into the string as much as possible, so that the sound is sustained."

"The Baroque bow was invented first, and I think it's the most intuitive way to make a bow and for it to handle," Augustin said. "It's actually quite easy to switch. However if you played your whole life with a Baroque bow and had to switch to a modern bow, that might be much more tricky. The modern bow has the more complex way that the sound is produced, and the weight and the balanced, and it's trying to do everything - it has to have lightness but also weight and a thick sound and colors - all these things. It's a more complex tool."

The Baroque bow was just one more element that helped Augustin go farther in a direction he was already heading, when it comes to Bach: finding the joy and the fun in it.

"The tradition of playing Bach, when I first heard it, was really severe," Augustin said. "It had no joy in it. Even something like the Gavotte felt like it was supposed to 'build character.' A lot of these movements have a lot of joy in them, especially the third sonata and third partita - they are such a release after the second sonata and second partita, which are so dramatic. In fact, I feel like the early 20th century approach to playing Bach worked much better for the second partita, for the dramatic parts, even though the tempi were a bit slower. I think the tragic emotion came through quite powerfully and movingly. But what really didn't work were some of the lighter and happy dances."

"The period performance practice movement has changed the way everyone is listening to Baroque music. It almost feels like I have different ears now than I had back then, because there are certain conventions that have changed," Augustin said. "The way people were vibrating back then would feel out of place now - excessive. I think things have changed for the better, especially with Baroque orchestral music, it has lightened everything a little bit, and it has a transparency that's really beautiful, and a it's bit more free."

"The Baroque was an era of excess, of flamboyant characters," he said. While Bach may have been a German church organist, he was well-versed in French dances, having worked with a French dance master and accompanied dancers at certain points in his life. "This would have been pretty flamboyant music-making - not what one often associates with Bach, if you think of him as this austere German church composer. But even when he writes religious music, the music is always dancing, and there are dances in so many of his pieces."

While Augustin used a Baroque bow, he did not tune his fiddle down to the lower A=415 pitch or string it with gut strings, as period performers sometimes do. He kept his violin at the modern pitch level of A=441, stringing it with synthetic strings: Evah Pirazzi A, D and G and a Gold Wondertone E.

The violin he plays does hail from the time of Bach -- the 1744 "Leduc, Szeryng" del Gesù, on loan by a patron through the Tarisio Trust. "It used to be Szeryng's violin - so sometimes people are comparing my Bach to Szeryng's - which I think is funny, because it probably couldn't sound more different!"

I mentioned that my favorite Bach edition is actually the Szeryng - which edition did he use?

"The edition I was using during the sessions was a Bärenreiter (urtext)," Augustin said. (Incidentally, Bärenreiter recently released a new and revised urtext edition of the Sonatas and Partitas.)

Not surprisingly, though, Augustin has his own take, based on the original Bach manuscript. The various urtext editions (editions like Bärenreiter and Henle, which are meant to hew as much as possible to exactly what Bach originally wrote) don't always agree, so "there is a certain amount of guesswork," Augustin said. "But I found this really enjoyable because it's such a beautiful manuscript to look at."

He started looking at it as a child. "When I was young, I spent so much time looking at every little thing," Augustin said. "Back then, the only 'edition' I had was incredibly overmarked - it had a million slurs, on top of each other, all over the place. So it was a big shock, to see the printed facsimile of Bach's manuscript. It was so exciting to find that the bowings that Bach wrote actually make sense -- and in many cases, they are easier."

For example? "In the Corrente in the second partita, they would always hook the dotted rhythms, and that's pretty standard, many editions still have that. But it actually makes it much more difficult because it stops the flow, whereas if you just play it as it comes (separate) it kind of just bounces along, especially with a Baroque bow. It's just much easier and more natural. There are a lot of cases where it feels more intuitive and natural, the way Bach first wrote it down."

Even so, it's not easy to tell what Bach wrote because "Bach has this annoying habit of starting the slurs too late, when they are below the notes - they often look like they start a note later than they do, and it's just a habit of his handwriting," Augustin said. "The test for the bowings is that Bach's bowings for the instrument generally work out - they come out okay at the end of the piece, if you do them. So if it doesn't, then I look for places where there might be ambiguity."

Does Augustin have a favorite Sonata or Partita?

"That's hard," Augustin said. "The Sonatas are so different from the Partitas. But if I have to choose, the second Partita is maybe the greatest work because of the Chaconne and what a masterpiece it is."

"But the one that I grew much closer to during the recording is the third sonata," he said. "I think I'd neglected it a bit when growing up, it's so difficult and I didn't quite understand it. I love how it's a rebirth or reawakening after the tragedy of the Chaconne. The (first-movement) Adagio starts on C natural, with this dotted rhythm -- it feels like it's slowly somehow coming back to life, it's this resurrection that's really beautiful. And the fugue is so full of joy, but it's hard to show in your playing, because it's so difficult! I think it's definitely not composed on the violin - you can kind of tell it's a keyboard player who wrote it. I know Bach played the violin, but he was primarily an organist, a keyboard virtuoso. Yes, it's possible to play on the violin, but what's not possible is to sustain all the notes in this fugue - you constantly have to break chords in a certain way and try to make it sound somehow like the voices continue. You go to the limit of what's technically possible, just as much as in a Paganini Caprice, it goes to the very edge, it really pushes us to the edge technically. But it's such a beautiful, joyful piece, I just love it. I didn't appreciate it as much before, and it became one of my favorites."

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Replies

April 21, 2021 at 01:54 PM · Bravo !!!!

April 21, 2021 at 06:03 PM · Thanks for getting this. I am liking much of what I hear from this set online!

April 22, 2021 at 04:37 AM · I’m really enjoying the recordings and love the interview! Thank you!

April 22, 2021 at 12:10 PM · Excellent piece. I am a big fan of Augustin’s virtuosity and generosity. He is a great player but also seems genuine, sincere and humble. I love that!

April 22, 2021 at 12:46 PM · This is a wonderful interview with an amazing artist. Thank you, Laurie!

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