The woman putting the feeling back into Bach

The composer's work should make you want to dance, says violinist Ruth Waterman.


By Jessica Duchen, May 20, 2011
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Many musicians are “hamstrung by convention” when they play Bach’s violin pieces, says Waterman

Many musicians are “hamstrung by convention” when they play Bach’s violin pieces, says Waterman

The violinist Ruth Waterman should probably be a household name, such is the quality of her musicianship. But perhaps that is also the reason she isn't. Throughout her career she has chosen a route more individual than the mainstream concert circuit, one that has allowed her to focus in earnest on her first great passion - the music of Bach.

Now a CD has been released in which she performs Bach's complete solo violin sonatas and partitas - an interpretation that represents the sum of her lifelong exploration of the composer's work.

Waterman's story began in Leeds, where she was born into one of Britain's best-known musical Jewish families. Fanny Waterman, who founded the Leeds International Piano Competition (and at 91 is still its chairman and artistic director), is her aunt; cellist David Waterman, a member of the Endellion String Quartet, is her brother; and their sister, Wendy Waterman, was a child prodigy pianist who performed a concerto at the Royal Festival Hall when she was only nine.

Both parents played musical instruments and they made sure their children experienced plenty of live performances, Waterman says. There were fine concerts at Leeds Town Hall, since the local concerts committee would "capture" visiting orchestras on tour en route from London to Scotland.

"The whole family would troop along to every concert and sit on Row 4," she remembers. "We heard some amazing performances, of a quality that otherwise would only have been available to hear in London or Edinburgh."

One of the hardest things was to empty my musical memory

Thanks chiefly to Wendy, Waterman grew up "with the sound of the piano coming out of both ears". She learned piano and violin with equal dedication at first, and started giving concerts early, if not quite as early as her sister. Later she had to choose between taking up a scholarship at Cambridge University to read economics, and pursuing her already flourishing musical career. The music won. "It was an important moment for me because I realised I couldn't do everything - choices had to be made," she says.

She had studied with two distinguished Hungarian professors, Endre Wolf and György Pauk, and the encouragement of Yehudi Menuhin also proved crucial: her big break was a performance at the Bath Festival under his baton. Later she went to New York to study at the Juilliard School, where her teachers included Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay, under whose tuition such artists as Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman had developed.

But she was only 12 years old when she first noticed that the way she was supposed to play Bach on the violin was significantly different from the expected approach to that composer's music on the piano. "Performing musicians translate the musical score into sound. We're in the business of translation," she points out. "To translate, you have to know what the original is, so you need to look carefully at what you're translating - really investigating its details, not just playing automatically, or repeating the way we've heard the same music performed many times before just because that sound is in our ears. One of the hardest things was to empty my musical memory: to be open enough to let the music speak in an untrammelled way that was not influenced by everything else I'd heard up to this point. It's been a very long journey."

One issue she was especially keen to address was the lack of emotional engagement that she encountered frequently when listening to other interpretations of Bach's violin music. "I always felt there was much more to the Bach solo sonatas and partitas. Most of the time I was not even moved or touched by them, let alone wanting to jump out of my seat and dance. I felt there wasn't enough acknowledgement of the range of emotion in this music, behind the notes, just as much as it is in the Bach Cantatas and the Passions.

"I began more investigations, such as finding transcriptions of some of the violin music that Bach himself made for keyboard. Sometimes they are startlingly dramatic and ornate - but people are still hamstrung by convention and they don't look at what's really there, even if the evidence is staring us in the face."

The core of Waterman's musical career has been about broadening the range of her emotional understanding. That quest goes well beyond the violin. In 2008 she brought out a book, When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo, about her experiences of working in Bosnia, conducting a multi-ethnic chamber orchestra in Mostar, not long after the civil war.

"I'd never encountered a situation like that before - one that was so fraught, so full of tension, so full of strong, unspoken and repressed feelings," she says. "At first you see the ruins and the physical legacy of the war - that's shocking enough. But the unseen legacies took much longer to impress themselves on me.

"It wasn't just a musical experience; people there needed to talk to outsiders like me about what had happened to them, and to feel they were being heard. How do we deal with such trauma? They all said they wanted to forget it and move on, but with the next sentence they'd be telling me what happened during the siege of Sarajevo. You can't just repress that sort of memory."

Waterman knows all too well the value of making the most of each waking and healthy moment - she is currently recovering from a course of chemotherapy. Many musicians might have found music a comfort when confronting an illness like cancer, but Waterman expresses only annoyance at having been unable to play while she was ill.

Ruth Waterman's recording of Bach's music for solo violin is released on Meridian

    Last updated: 1:46pm, May 20 2011