Thursday, May 14, 2020

Before Quarantine, Music for Isolation: Solo Works by Bach & Ysaÿe

This week’s dose of great music focuses on the richly nuanced narrative of two masterpieces for solo instruments written two centuries apart. I hope that the two audio recordings will reintroduce the joy of pure listening into our quarantined lives currently dominated by screens.

The first link is featuring Bach’s intimately reflective Suite No.1 for Cello Solo, performed by the Romanian cellist Andrei Ioniţă as part of his recital at the Temple Ohev Sholom on February 12:

The second link offers a look back at the 2015 performance of Ysaÿe’s Second Sonata for Violin Solo by Hungarian violinist Kristóf Barati on the eve of his Carnegie Hall debut in 2015. 

- Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts.

For those us tired of looking at screens instead of live musicians, here's an opportunity to hear live musicians recorded in concert but without that often crucial (but sometimes distracting) visual element. For those of us who might be nostalgic for some good old-fashioned technology, think of it as... well... radio!

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Andrei Ioniţă in 2015
Before you fear mispronouncing his name, it's quite simple when you can print those diacritical markings (otherwise known as “funny little marks”) like ö, ř, ç, and å – and know how they sound: though it's usually printed “Ionita” for lack of those marks, it's really “Ioniţă” where in Romanian the “ţă” is pronounced “tsuh.” Now, put the accent on the second syllable and it's “yuh-NEE-tsuh.” (Close enough.)

If you want to read more about this concert, check this post which, in addition to the Bach (copied & pasted below), included intriguing works for solo cello by Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly, Australian composer Brett Dean, and especially if you've been hankering for some Swedish classical/rock/folk/jazz composer Svante Henryson played by a Romanian-born cellist who won Russia's Tchaikovsky competition in 2015 who now lives in Berlin and who'd played this at his Market Square Concerts' program at Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg on a program with an 18th-Century German, a 20th-Century Hungarian and a 21st-Century Australian! Talk about global!

Who would've believed, those of us sitting at Temple Ohev Shalom that February night, this would be the last time we could all be together with great live music during our 2019-2020 Season, all thanks to a global pandemic...
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Bach: Cello Suite #1
Like his Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Bach also wrote Six Suites for Solo Cello. Though “partita” and “suite” are essentially interchangeable, a collection of dances, here, the idea of a “sonata” was a little more weighty: apparently Bach chose to stay on the lighter side of things with the cello (even though the weightiest of the violin pieces is undoubtedly the Chaconne from the D Minor Partita, still originally a dance piece). There are no fugues for solo cello, not even the same kind of three-voice counterpoint you'd find in the violin works. But if you took the constant arpeggiations of the cello suites and “blocked” them into chords, you'd find essentially the same thing, just “broken up” into arpeggios played one-note-after-the-other rather than as single chords. This is a French style from around 1700 called style brisé or “broken style,” especially suited to instruments like the lute. It can be applied to the cello more than the violin for acoustical reasons: given its lower register, the cello's texture would be too muddy to be playing such dense chords. Also, given the span it would take for the fingers to play them, it would also be more tiring. That's why the Cello Suites sound “lighter” than the contrapuntal Violin Sonatas and Partitas: our ear, despite sensing the harmonies, hears single notes in a running thread – called monophonic. One musicologist referred to these suites as “Monophonic music wherein a man has created a dance of God.”

Usually, I talk about the “biography behind the music,” leading up to the work's composition, but as is typical with Bach, we're not sure when he wrote them: sometime while he was responsible for the chamber music at Cothen, between 1717 and 1723 (when he became the choir director at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig). Since the manuscript of the violin pieces is dated 1720 and given the style of the cello pieces by comparison, it's assumed the Cello Suites were written first. There is also a question whether they were all written as a set or individually over the years, then collected at some point into a volume ready to be published.

That said, another problem exists in that the only manuscript copy (see photo, above) is not in Bach's own handwriting but his wife, Anna Magdalena's, who herself was a singer and served as a copyist in the “family business,” as Bach churned out new cantatas for his demanding job in Leipzig's main church. That is, when she found time to copy his music, not only raising her stepchildren from Bach's first marriage but having thirteen – thirteen!!! – children of her own. By the way, in 1723, when they moved to Leipzig, the new Frau Bach was 21 years old.

For a while, there was a theory that she was actually the composer of the cello suites, though the grounds for such an assumption were more than flimsy – yes, women composers were frowned upon and it's not unusual for their music to be presented under their husbands' names. But most Bach scholars have trounced this theory, studying manuscripts and other works and finding nothing in the least bit comparable to them anywhere else in the collection. If there's a discrepancy in the styles between the cello and the violin pieces, it may also have to do with the fact Bach himself played the violin but not the cello. Any possible wrong notes or “mistakes” in harmony as have been suggested as proof Bach could not have composed them could also be the result of copyist errors (it has been known to happen...).

But what of “Life After Composition” for our six cello suites?

Any of the technical and scholarly problems that exist can also be traced to the lack of an authoritative original manuscript. And since the old man's library was divided between his composing sons, much of the collection was dispersed. Wilhelm Friedemann, the oldest, never much of a success and unfortunately an alcoholic, sold many of the ones he owned because he was always in need of money. Some of Carl Philip Emanuel's portion, overlooked in a Berlin library, was stolen by the Soviets after World War II and has since disappeared.) Subsequent copies and what was eventually published were also not without discrepancies. In fact, they were not published until they were “rediscovered” in 1825, 75 years after Bach's death (and four years before Mendelssohn's famous revival of the St. Matthew Passion).

Regardless, they were basically ignored. Mozart and Beethoven never wrote concertos for the cello – at least Beethoven wrote five sonatas for it – and very few, other than Boccherini, himself a cellist, paid the instrument much attention. It was an “acoustical” thing, that was the primary excuse, and even though Brahms wrote two sonatas and half of the “Double Concerto” for it, he was so surprised to hear how well Dvořák avoided these issues in his new Cello Concerto in 1895, he was sorry he had not tried one himself but now felt it was too late to bother (he would die two years later). Imagine...

So, meanwhile, in Barcelona. Picture it: 1889, in a dusty second-hand book shop, a 13-year-old cello prodigy named Pablo Casals found a tattered copy of six suites for solo cello by Bach in one of the bins. He bought them – one wonders for how much! – took them home and worked on them every day. Still, it wasn't till another 13 years passed he felt ready to perform them in public (that would make it 1902). And even then, he waited until 1936 when he was 60 to record them.

And now, fast forward to 1915, in Budapest, in what was then the dying years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where there was a young composition professor who'd only received his first public performances five years earlier. In 1907, he'd spent six months traveling through Berlin, then Paris, returning with a bunch of scores, most notably music by Claude Debussy. He and a friend had already begun their excursions into the Hungarian countryside, studying the true folk music of the region (not the “gypsy stuff” popularized by Liszt and Brahms), and all of these influences apparently coalesced into a series of pieces written once the start of the “Great War” (as World War I was called until there was a second one) curtailed not only their folk music collecting trips but also had other impacts on their creative and daily lives.

In 1915, Zoltan Kodály, then 32, wrote his Sonata in B Minor for Solo Cello, now considered the first major work for solo cello to be written since Bach composed his six suites some two centuries earlier.

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Speaking of those Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin, Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann about Bach's D Minor Chaconne (which Brahms arranged for piano, left hand only): “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

It was Joseph Szigeti's performance of the 1st of Bach's epic collection – the Sonata in G Minor – that prompted Eugene Ysaÿe, one of the great violinists of his day, to try his hand at “doing likewise.” In this case, that meant an encyclopedic variety of musical techniques both in terms of its composition as well as in the demands placed on the performer.

Written in 1920 – in the aftermath of World War I's devastation as Europe tried pulling itself out of the rubble, and just a few years after Bartók finished his 2nd String Quartet (heard in last week's “dose”) – the Belgian Ysaÿe dedicated each of his six sonatas to a different colleague. In this program, Baráti played both the 2nd and 3rd Sonatas, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud and fellow-composer Georges Enescu respectively. In today's “dose,” we'll hear the 2nd which, not coincidentally, starts off with more than a nod to Bach's Partita No. 3 in E Major!

Here again is the link to the audio recording of Kristóf Baráti playing Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2.

As Ysaÿe explained, "I have played everything from Bach to Debussy” – who'd died in 1918 – “for real art should be international." In these sonatas, he used now familiar fingerprints of early-20th Century style ranging from Debussy's whole-tone scales, dissonances that might be familiar from the earlier works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartók, even “quarter tones” which have to be approached very carefully or a listener may think “but he's playing out-of-tune!”

But virtuosity is not just the ability to play fast notes flashily. Ysaÿe employed virtuoso bow as well as left-hand techniques throughout, believing “at the present day the tools of violin mastery, of expression, technique, mechanism, are far more necessary than in days gone by. In fact they are indispensable, if the spirit is to express itself without restraint.” So, just as Bach did so significantly two centuries earlier, Ysaÿe's set of sonatas places high technical demands on its performers. Yet Ysaÿe recurrently warns violinists that they should never forget to play instead of becoming preoccupied with technical elements; a violin master "must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion and despair, he must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all in his playing."

Julian Haylock of The Strad reviewed Baráti's recent release of the Ysaÿe Sonatas, available on Brilliant Classics:

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"Kristóf Baráti is recorded with exemplary presence in a seductively enveloping acoustic – it feels as though the young Hungarian violinist is standing in the room with you, and the range of dynamics and articulation he encompasses is remarkable. Tapping into his instrument’s natural resonances, cleanly defined by exceptionally strong finger-falls (with occasional fingerboard resonance), the gives the effect of a pure, open sound being gently coaxed and cajoled rather than forced out of the instrument. Little wonder, then, that his mentor Eduard Wulfson is a former pupil of both Nathan Milstein and Henryk Szeryng.

Baráti’s dazzling range of bow strokes and ear-ringing intonation combine throughout to create the impression of technical challenges arising directly out of the music’s expressive core rather than mere hurdles to be overcome. In the opening ‘Obsession’ of the Second Sonata he employs an exciting slight kick to his staccatos and multiple-stopping reminiscent of the young Shlomo Mintz. But what makes this a truly exceptional disc is Baráti’s interpretative vision – movements that in even the most skilled of hands often sound expressively one-dimensional here emerge as deeply compelling emotional narratives. He even makes the moto perpetuo semiquavers that crown the ‘Fritz Kreisler’ Sonata no.4 dance free of musical gravity, with an enchanting sense of every note floating on air. A highly distinguished release."
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As a pianist, I was often aware how lonely music-making can be, just me and my piano no matter what sized room I'm in. But I thought, often smuggly, that at least I can make music by myself without needing to rely on an "accompanist" or some other collaborators for chamber music or a whole orchestra of colleagues.

And yet here, thanks to Bach and those he inspired, a violinist or a cellist can experience "a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings" with only themselves and their instruments.

Not to mention, if we're lucky, those who can also, once in a while, listen in.

- Dick Strawser

If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Musical Contrasts in a Time of Imbalance: Mozart and Bartók (Mozart's String Quartet in B-flat, K.589 and Bartók's 2nd String Quartet with the Escher Quartet)

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)

Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  

Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (Members of the Harrisburg Symphony Play the Brandenburg Concertos (Excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  

A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

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