This recording of the Sonatas and Partitas marks a significant milestone on a never-ending journey. I have always felt a very close bond with Bach’s music, and from an early age I sensed it would play a central role in my life. Despite this, getting close to Bach’s world and really understanding it has not been easy nor without long periods of discouragement. For many years, even though I was playing and studying these works on a fairly regular basis, I never managed to find any principle or pathway that would allow me to express my feelings for this music.
When I was at the conservatory in Moscow, my teachers gave me a set of very strict rules for playing Bach’s music: they were based on a widely-held approach of the time that combined a standardized beautiful sound, broad, uniform articulation, long phrasing, if possible, and continuous and regular vibrato on every single note, in imitation, they used to say, of an imaginary organ. I realise that mention of these criteria today might raise a smile, but they give a good idea of the musical aesthetic that I was grounded in. During those years, my Sonatas and Partitas became stiff, monotonous and even more difficult to perform, because I had not been provided with the basic principles for understanding the Baroque text. I used to play them with very little articulation, and without the distinction between strong and weak beats that is so naturally linked to bow-strokes. But most of all, I didn’t understand the harmonic relationships, which are fundamental to a feeling of freedom and involvement in the musical argument. I tried to make up for all these problems by studying hard, but the whole thing seemed to me very difficult and physically impossible to sustain.
Then I left my own country, and a period began when I was travelling constantly and playing a vast number of concerts. This meant endless repetition of the same pieces, a great deal of time spent alone studying, and little time to prepare new repertoire and deepen my understanding of the music I knew, or thought I knew.
It was when I was in Paris rehearsing once that I had the great and unexpected good luck to encounter Marco Postinghel, a young bassoonist and continuo player. He first overturned the few certainties I had about Baroque music, and then, thanks to a friendship which I have come to treasure, took me on a wonderful but demanding journey that has finally led to this recording. I remember that on the very first evening, he told me more about early music in the space of a few hours than I had ever heard or imagined. No one before had used such a body of evidence to explain to me the way the musical discourse, particularly in Bach, is sustained by multiple elements that are all interconnected: harmonic impulse, articulation, polyphony, counterpoint, form, and so on. He explained it all with an enthusiasm that I found completely contagious. I suddenly realised that I had not had the same preparation as an artist as I had as an instrumentalist, and that I needed a period of reflection and study to fill this gap. I immediately cancelled a scheduled recording of Bach’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord, and started feverishly studying and exploring everything to do with early music. I read through a great deal of music by composers such as Biber, Leclair, Tartini, Corelli, Vivaldi and many others, feeling that it would help me to understand the music of Bach better.
I listened to countless concerts and recordings by artists such as Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Giovanni Antonini and his wonderful ensemble ‘Il Giardino Armonico’, and Ottavio Dantone, one of the greatest interpreters of Bach I know, and I was utterly captivated and drawn toward what I heard. With this inspiration in my ears and in my heart, still with the assistance of my friend Marco, I began to study the Baroque repertoire afresh, this time in a completely new, and now systematic way.
I carried on at first on a modern instrument, then as my understanding of the 18th-century aesthetic increased I came, quite naturally, to feel the need to change to gut strings and Baroque bows. Bit by bit, the musicians I admired so much and who had unknowingly given me such help in my investigation, started to invite me to play some concerts with them, and that was a great thrill for me. This injection of trust from them led me to study even more intensely and to make the Baroque repertoire central to my artistic life. So much so that now playing Bach has become part of my spiritual and emotional well-being (an experience that I find almost like meditation).
Now when I happen to hear my old Bach recordings, I’m still amazed by the enormous transformation that has occurred. I recognise the violinist, but not the musician. I am aware that continuing to play and study the works of Bach’s genius is an endless process of exploration and that one day I might find this recording surprising and distant too! But I hope that it bears witness to the seriousness, respect and love with which I have tried to approach this timeless music.
Viktoria Mullova, 2009