Born into a household where Bach cantatas were the standard Sunday soundtrack, violinist Christian Tetzlaff has become one of the foremost Bach interpreters in the world. In anticipation of his solo Bach recital on March 28, 2018, as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series, he shared some of the recordings and ideas that were formative to his understanding of the composer.

Go to Christian's Essential Bach Playlist.

Amanda MacBlane: What are your very first conscious memories of Bach’s music?

Christian Tetzlaff: Bach has been the musical background of my life from far before I can remember. Where I grew up, in Germany, there would be a Bach cantata on the radio every Sunday morning. It would be playing everywhere, so it was basically just background noise. But with time, it became something poignant. My first years of exposure would have been in the late ’60s and early ’70s when Bach performances, like the ones conducted by Karl Richter, were about grandiosity and strength. They sound rather weird to our ears nowadays, but they’re also monumental.

As I grew older and more conscious of what I was actually hearing, the approach to Bach changed into human statements, starting with the early recordings by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and later to John Eliot Gardiner. All of a sudden, the music started to speak and jump, to dance and shout and whisper. It became real to me. I really draw my Bach energy from John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions and any of the 200 cantatas that Ton Koopman did with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Every single sinfonia will tell you a new story. 

AMB: How did these early experiences with Bach influence your own artistry? 

CT: Growing up listening to the cantatas made it clear to me that music is always about something. The strength of Bach’s music—be it in the dark or joyful utterances—is that it is such a naïve and direct language. Bach seems to speak a language that everybody already knows, which is fascinating. I believe that even pieces that are nonverbal and have no text usually have very specific emotions and situations that the composer wants to depict. So if Bach has the word death in his head, how does he represent it? What does he write for joy and love? How does that sound to him? What we do as musicians should be translations of these words into the hearts of the listener. Even children get a lot out of Bach. I see that with my own children; I see it when I go to schools. There is no protective clothing needed. Even the very young pupils immediately start talking about what they experience when they hear his music, more so, in my opinion, than with composers like Mozart and Beethoven.

Bach seems to speak a language that everybody already knows.

AMB: Do you have favorite pieces that you like to play for young audiences?

CT: Yes, of course. If they are six or seven, you don’t want to trot the middle ground. You go straight to the most devastatingly sad movement or to the most joyful, fast movement. Then you get them talking about what it makes them feel and why they think music exists. For example, what sense does it make to listen to very sad music? If you’re already sad, isn’t that counterproductive? Where does catharsis fit in? 

AMB: How do you answer those questions?

CT: It is comforting to think that Bach or the people he is writing about have all encountered tragedy. They deal with it and they weep—Bach often weeps in his music. Weeping is one of the releases that is fortunately given to us as humans, as is sharing. Your grief can turn into something positive if you have a good friend to talk to about it, and this is what a composer is always offering. He’s saying, “I’ve been there. We all have.” 

AMB: So, what would you say is the saddest of Bach movements for you?

CT: All of them! [laughs] But looking just at the violin sonatas, he seems to try to write every possible sentiment in the world. There are a few places in the Chaconne where he arrives at what feels like a point of no return. In Bach’s time there was an actual musical language that went with words; there were certain harmonies and gestures that would indicate sin or death or weeping and the Chaconne is just overflowing with those dark symbols. It is something that everybody who has ears can readily live through and feel with Bach and the interpreter. 

AMB: And the most joyful movements?

CT: The magic of the solo violin cycle is that after that first set of minor pieces, which culminate in the dark Chaconne, Bach moves on into the brightest possible regions: the C-major Sonata and the E-major Partita. In the E-major, it’s playing on the highest string of the fiddle in the major mode, much higher than all of the other movements, in a sparkling, long presto. After the darkness of the Chaconne, these state that the opposite also exists in the world. The general story in these pieces is written in stone: a journey from darkness to light. There is nothing you can or should change. And if you’re looking for a good violin line, there are very few things as profound and comforting as the Air from the Orchestral Suite in D Major. The violin line is so simple and yet seems to say so many things at once. A miracle.

Christian Tetzlaff's Essential Bach Playlist

Sunday Morning Cantatas conducted by Karl Richter
Early recordings by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner

St. Matthew Passion & St. John Passion – The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

Sinfonia from the Cantatas – Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra conducted by Ton Koopman 

Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004

Fuga from the Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005
Preludio from the Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006

Air from Orchestral Suite in D Major

And his full Bach violin cycle from 2017...

Amanda MacBlane is Senior Writer/Editor at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.