Gidon Kremer’s Changing Approach to Solo Bach

Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer
Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer

 

It’s some of the most deeply profound and perfect music ever written, and it employs the most economical means imaginable. J.S. Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, completed in 1720 and neglected until almost a century later, are a cornerstone of the violin repertoire. They’re studied by every serious violin student. Yet, as you play solo Bach, you quickly get the sense that it takes a lifetime to fully grasp the endless layers of expression and meaning in this “Bible of music.” In fact, first rank soloists like Joshua Bell have said publicly that they don’t feel ready to record this music.

Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer first released the complete Sonatas and Partitas in 1980 on the Phillips label. That recording showcases Kramer’s trademark rebellious and sometimes angular individuality. He foregoes a straightforwardly “singing” tone, instead drawing a rich array of expressive voices from his instrument. At times, his sound is raspy and even harsh, a reminder that “beauty” is only one side of expression. A buoyant sense of baroque dance remains.

Kremer returned to solo Bach in 2001 with a recording on the ECM label (released in 2005). You can compare his approach to the B minor Partita in 1980 to the performance below. It’s interesting to hear the way he brings out contrasting voices. In the opening Allemanda, a dramatic conversation unfolds. Occasionally, one voice seems to impatiently interrupt another. In the First Partita, each movement is followed by a Double, a variation which develops the preceding movement’s theme at twice the speed. In the opening movement of the D minor Partita (beginning at 27:32), Kremer draws distinction between strong beats and weaker beats, allowing certain notes to pop out of the texture. The mighty Ciaccona, which concludes the D minor Partita, begins at 41:50. The E major Partita begins at 56:00.

Here is Gidon Kremer performing the complete Partitas, during the 2001 recording session. Listen and share your thoughts in the thread below.

For German speakers, this documentary offers an inside look at Gidon Kramer’s 2001 recording session.

I tried to forget all the other interpretations, to concentrate on the musical problems and also to be loyal to the score and to what is behind it. The spiritual aspect is in effect more important than the violinistic challenges. I didn’t think about succeeding, just unleashing my interpretation…You are not supposed to pronounced God’s name, as it is written in the scriptures, and for me Bach is God. It is obvious that his music is written by someone who came from another planet, but at the same time he is a human being — let’s not forget that he had 23 children! He saw his work as service, and through it he was serving something even greater. My challenge was to treat Bach like a contemporary composer. How it will be judged is not my concern.

-Gidon Kremer

Live Concert Recording: Gingold Plays Fauré

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Over the weekend, I ran across this amazing 1966 live concert recording of Josef Gingold performing Gabriel Fauré’s First Violin Sonata. The recording’s sound quality isn’t the best. But the essence of Gingold’s soulful, sweetly vibrant tone and smooth, golden phrasing cuts through the tape hiss and audience noise. In a recent interview Joshua Bell described the tone that poured out of Gingold’s Strad as, “the most beautiful sound of any violinist, to this day, that I’ve heard.”

A student of Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), Gingold performed in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony and served as concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Remembered as one of the twentieth century’s most important violin teachers, Gingold served on the faculty of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music for more than thirty years. His students included Joshua Bell, Corey Cerovsek, Leonidas Kavakos, Miriam Fried, and William Preucil. In a past Listeners’ Club post, we explored Gingold’s approach to violin playing and teaching.

Gabriel Fauré’s music often seems to float with an elegant effervescence and buoyant sense of forward motion. Musicologists have viewed Fauré as a link between Romanticism and the hazy, rule-breaking Impressionism of Claude Debussy. We hear all of this in the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major. First performed in 1877, the piece was initially rejected by Parisian publishers who found its harmonies shockingly adventurous. Camille Saint-Saëns, who had been Fauré’s teacher, wrote:

In this Sonata you can find everything to tempt a gourmet: new forms, excellent modulations, unusual tone colors, and the use of unexpected rhythms…And a magic floats above everything, encompassing the whole work, causing the crowd of usual listeners to accept the unimagined audacity as something quite normal. With this work Monsieur Fauré takes his place among the masters.

Here is the first movement, Allegro molto. The music opens with waves of luxurious sound in the piano. The violin enters, picking up the piano’s motive and developing it. The music soars increasingly higher, culminating in a particularly luscious passage (1:08-1:17) before falling back. At moments, you may be reminded of César Franck’s Violin Sonata, also in A major, written a few years later in 1886.

In this performance Gingold is joined by pianist Walter Robert.

The second movement, Andante:

The third movement, Allegro vivo:

The fourth movement, Allegro quasi presto:

  • Find this recording, The Art of Josef Gingold at iTunesAmazon.
  • Joshua Bell talks about Gingold in this Strad Magazine interview.

Joshua Bell’s Bach Album

Unknown-24Joshua Bell released his newest album yesterday. The CD, simply titled “Bach”, is Bell’s first recording collaboration with the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields since becoming the orchestra’s music director in 2011.

If you’re expecting another predictable round of Bach concertos, you may be surprised. This album includes the monumental Chaconne from Partita No. 2 with Mendelssohn’s rare piano accompaniment (adapted for orchestra), as well as Schumann’s accompaniment of the Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No. 3. It’s not the way you would want to hear solo Bach every day. In fact, Mendelssohn’s addition practically turns the Chaconne into a completely new piece. Still, these offerings fall to the category of historical curiosity and are worth exploring.

It’s the A Minor and E Major Violin Concertos which make this recording stand out. The connection between Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields feels more like chamber music than a violin solo with orchestra accompaniment. There is incredible attention to detail, balance, and sense of dialogue. In the haunting second movement of the E Major Concerto, the bass line converses with the solo violin, while long sustained chords in the violins suggest an atmosphere of mystery. Bell occasionally adds ornaments and captures the joy of the Baroque dance-like rhythms. Air on the G String is also included. “Bach” is available on iTunes.

The release of Joshua Bell’s CD coincided with his return to the Washington D.C. metro yesterday. This time, unlike his extensively publicized 2007 experiment, commuters recognized him and stopped to listen.

You can hear Bell with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in this clip of the final movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Also, listen to him play the Bach Chaconne in its original, unaccompanied form:

Waves at Play

Waves at PlayI spent part of the afternoon yesterday experiencing the power and endless, hypnotic rhythm of waves crashing on the beach. I was killing time between a morning rehearsal and an outdoor evening performance with the Virginia Symphony on the Virginia Beach boardwalk.

Watching the waves, I was reminded of Edwin Grasse’s slightly obscure violin showpiece, Wellenspiel (Waves at Play), written in 1914. Grasse (1884-1954) was an American violinist, organist and composer. Joshua Bell included this piece on his 1990 CDPresenting Joshua Bell. 

Waves at Play may not be the most profound piece ever written, but it’s still a lot of fun, especially in the hands of Jascha Heifetz. This old recording shows off Heifetz’s perfect sense of musical timing and effortless left hand technique. Listen to the way he takes time to sing through all of the notes leading into rests:

Carmen Fantasies

CarmenGeorges Bizet’s Carmen remains one of opera’s most popular hits, partly because of its rich and exotic melodies. These melodies were the inspiration for Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, written in 1883.

In the nineteenth century, composers commonly used opera melodies as a springboard for new virtuoso showpieces. At the time, arias from Carmen and other operas would have fallen into the category of “popular music.” Franz Liszt wrote a  Fantasia on two themes from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Grande Paraphrase de Concert sur le Rigoletto de Verdi among other opera-inspired pieces. Joshua Bell’s 2001 West Side Story Suite continues this tradition.

Here is Sarah Chang performing Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Waxman’s Carmen[/typography]

Franz Waxman offered another take on Carmen in his score for the 1946 film Humoresque. Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie was originally written for Jascha Heifetz, but the score was recorded by a young Isaac Stern. Here is the film’s original trailer. The recordings by Heifetz and Stern are both worth hearing:

My Funny Valentine

valentines dayIn celebration of Valentine’s Day, here is Joshua Bell and Broadway singer and actress Kristin Chenoweth performing Rodgers and Hart’s ballad, My Funny Valentine. The song was originally written for the 1937 musical, Babes in Arms. It has become a jazz and pop standard with notable performances by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and others.

The melody by Richard Rodgers is unusual for a Broadway ballad. Set in an atmospheric minor key, it conveys a beautiful sense of melancholy. Listen to the way it gradually reaches higher, slipping back and forth between minor and major.

This is an excerpt of Bell’s 2009 recording, Joshua Bell At Home With Friends:

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My Funny Valentine lyrics by Lorenz Hart:

[quote]My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Unphotographable
Yet you’re my favourite work of art
Is your figure less than Greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day [/quote]

Joshua Bell at home with friends

The Violin: A Cross Between Art and Technology

violinist Frank Almond
violinist Frank Almond

Last week the music world was shocked by news of a well coordinated theft of the priceless 1715 “Lipinski” Stradivarius. The violin was on loan to Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Following a concert, the thieves used a stun gun to incapacitate Almond, who was not seriously injured. A $100,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the safe return of the instrument. You can read a statement from the violin’s owner at Almond’s website.

Last May I profiled A Violin’s Life, Frank Almond’s excellent recording featuring the “Lipinski” Strad. A Violin’s Life was an honorable project because it allowed the public to celebrate the sound and distinguished history of this extraordinary instrument. On some level, a work of art of this caliber belongs to all of us.

As musicians we develop deep emotional bonds with our instruments. We spend many hours together. We put in our energy and the violin gives back. The greatest violins offer up a seemingly endless array of tonal colors. Over time, the violinist has the joy of discovering what the instrument can do and how to draw the best sounds out.

As this open letter to the thieves states, it will be impossible for the violin to be sold for many years. This means, if not returned, it will probably sit in a vault unplayed. Besides its value as an investment, what good is an unplayed violin? We can only hope for a happy ending to this story.

Update: The “Lipinski” Strad Has Been Recovered

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Art Meets Technology[/typography]

A great violin is both a technological tool and a work of art. The PBS documentary, Violin Masters: Two Gentleman of Cremona showcases history’s two most respected violin makers, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744). The film highlights some of the aspects which make these violins so extraordinary as well as the differences between them (Strads are generally sweet while the Guarneri is known for a deep, rich chocolaty sound). Joshua Bell talks about his Strad in this clip.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Modern Violin Making[/typography]

Modern violin makers, known as luthiers, still copy the Strad and Guarneri models. No one has improved on this combination of dimensions, wood, varnish and craftsmanship. The “secret” regarding what makes these instruments so great also remains a mystery. This short film features a behind the scenes look at the work of Oregon luthier David Gusset:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Red Violin[/typography]

The 1998 film The Red Violin offered a romantic view of the long life of a great violin. The movie’s score was written by American composer John Corigliano. Here is violinist Philippe Quint playing music from the film:

[quote]Every time I open my violin case and find this treasure inside, my heart jumps just a little bit. This 300-year-old artifact is the perfect unity of art and science, one of the most remarkable constructions made by a human being.[/quote]

-Joshua Bell (See this Strad Magazine interview).