June 03, 2010


Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Sergey Khachatryan, violin. Naïve. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Walter Steffens: Guernica and Other Paintings. Labor. $16.99.

     Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo are among the composer’s most highly personal works – in addition to being among the greatest challenges for violinists, even some 300 years after Bach wrote these pieces in 1720. Bach, who was himself a fine violinist (even though he is better known as a keyboard player), thoroughly plumbed the depths of the violin’s capabilities and thus challenged every violinist of his time and thereafter to prove his or her technical ability plus musicality in performing two-and-a-half hours of complex music that frequently sounds contrapuntal even though the violin itself can produce only a single line of notes and some intermittent chords. Because of the way these works were written, every performance of them is as much a personal expression as was Bach’s original creation of the music. Sergey Khachatryan, playing a lovely violin dating to Bach’s time (a 1708 Stradivarius), is nevertheless far from fanatical about performing in the style in which Bach himself would have played this music. Khachatryan takes a more expansive view of these works, making them bigger and, yes, more Romantic in their expressiveness and intensity. His approach will not please musical purists or advocates of historical performance practices, but if accepted as Khachatryan’s own individual view of this music – overlaid on Bach’s personal approach to creating it – the performance will win listeners over and hold them throughout. It is easy, but not very useful, to carp at details of these performances: the swelling of sound, some variations in tempo, the strongly emotional cast of some movements, the overall intensity of the whole enterprise. But it is better to consider the lovely details that Khachatryan brings out almost constantly as he seeks to find these works’ emotional centers: here, he pushes a dance movement such as a Courante far too quickly for it to be danced, but showcases its verve and spirit; there, he makes a slow Sarabande warmer and more emotive than one expects in Bach, but in so doing pulls listeners’ emotions more clearly into his playing. These are not austere performances by any means: they are warm, committed, and frequently impulsive. They have the shine of youthfulness – Bach was 35 when he wrote the music and Khachatryan is only 25 this year – and some of youth’s excesses as well. It is unlikely that Khachatryan will play these works this way as he develops further as an artist and matures more as a human being; but that is one of the charms of this two-CD set. It offers committed and intense Bach rather than careful, contemplative, elevated Bach – not ideal Bach, to be sure, but interesting, even fascinating Bach from a young violinist who still has some interpretative growing to do but who here already shows that he can perform masterworks with a sure hand and give them a strong personal stamp.

     The personal elements are of a very different kind in a CD of music by Walter Steffens (born 1934). Called Guernica and Other Paintings, the CD presents a variety of performers in music that Steffens created to be tied to specific works by Pablo Picasso (Guernica), Edvard Munch (Siguiriya or The Cry), Hieronymus Bosch (Pintura del Mondo or The Garden of Earthly Delights), and Marc Chagall (Le Cantique des Cantiques or The Song of Songs). Steffens is primarily an opera composer, but in these shorter works he ranges through a variety of choral and instrumental forces: Guernica is for viola and orchestra, Siguiriya for mixed chorus, Pintura del Mondo for orchestra, and Le Cantique des Cantiques for organ. The works are uniformly well made, but all suffer from an underlying requirement that listeners be familiar with the paintings – indeed, with the details of the paintings – in order to make sense of the music. These are pieces that go beyond tone poems to become point-by-point musical interpretations of considerable specificity – which lends them fascination if you know the works to which they refer, but will otherwise lead mostly to puzzlement. There is beauty in the elegiac Guernica, but it is pervaded by sadness that listeners need to know is tied to the events that led Picasso to create his painting. Siguiriya is even more abstruse, using three poems by Federico García Lorca as a gloss on Munch. The atmospheric Pintura del Mondo is intended to tie directly into Bosch’s elaborate and famous (or notorious) triptych. And the organ symphony Le Cantique des Cantiques requires, for full appreciation, familiarity not only with the biblical Song of Songs but also with specific details of Chagall’s five oils drawn from the ancient text. As experiments, and intermittently simply as music, Steffens’ works are interesting and effective. But they ask quite a lot of listeners and, in the final analysis, do not add a great deal to the impressions given by the works of art themselves – there is more a feeling of transposing visual works to a new medium than of commenting on or expanding upon them. There is enough interesting material here to give the Steffens CD a (+++) rating, but this is very rarefied music that appears intended only for an audience focused on esoterica.

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