Violinists approach Bach's solo violin sonatas and partitas with reverential awe as the ultimate test of a violinist's musicianship, or with reverential awe as a necessary exercise in a violinist's development. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but rather complement each other as a measure of a violinist, both of her technique and musical thought.
Most celebrated violinists of the LP era have put their stamp on Bach's solo violin works. Grumiaux, Heifetz, Menuhin, Milstein, Szeryng, Szigeti and Vegh all made recordings after having established themselves as artists. The next generation of fiddlers, including Haendel, Kremer, and Perlman, continued this trend. The newest generation, however, including Hahn, Fischer, Podger, and St. John, now debut with Bach or essay his solo works early in their careers, giving us youthful but not necessarily immature interpretations of works that challenge players their entire lifetimes. Of the players mentioned, perhaps Szigeti strays furthest from established convention on how the pieces are played, but now with the Tenenbaum recording, we have an interpretation that manages to combine the highly individual nature of interpretation with an overarching logic, making strange and new the old and familiar. Tenenbaum accomplishes this feat by paradoxically incorporating ideas about Baroque period practice into music which had long ago adapted to evolutions in violin methodology which subsumed, and then eventually buried, the music's Baroque origins.
I first heard Ms. Tenenbaum's Bach on the radio, catching her performance of the Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004, in mid-play and not knowing to whom I was listening. Her seemingly arbitrary tempo variations and exaggerated breaking of chords distracted me, and I initially could hear no logic to her idiosyncratic interpretation. Her playing, in and of itself, was muscular and assured, but her interpretive choices baffled me. Every time she disrupted the "natural" rhythm, e.g. by drawing out a note in the middle of a phrase or rushing through a group of decorative sixteenth notes, I became more and more convinced I was listening to a willful artist. When she finally reached the Chaconne, I had heard things that both infuriated and intrigued me, but through it all I had sensed a sharp intellect. When she struck the opening chords of the Chaconne with an intensity that demanded my attention, I had to know who this forceful and mysterious violinist was, and listened intently to the very end, rewarded finally with the name of a violinist I had not previously known.
Ms. Tenenbaum includes a third CD in her set of Bach solo works, a record of her spoken ideas on how she thinks about and interprets these works. She speaks as she plays, pronouncing her words and ideas with a careful precision emphasized by the rough edges of her Ukrainian accent. She gives both metaphorical and specific examples of her musical thoughts; e.g. imagining an organist with both hands and feet playing individual voices for polyphonic passages such as the Siciliano of the Sonata No. 1, or emphasizing B-flat in the Adagio of the same sonata based on disparity between the key signature (D minor) and the actual tonality (G minor) of the movement. Insights into her thinking such as these and many others provide rationale behind her interpretive approach, but the playing itself must provide the final justification for the listener of these well-known works. Because Tenenbaum plays with utter conviction and fearlessness, her Bach sometimes threatens to overwhelm rather than persuade, but it is never boring and never less than challenging.