March 31, 2016
(+++) BAROQUE RETHINKINGS
Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir, violin. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).
The Bach Project: Organ Works, Volume 2. Todd Fickley, Marcussen & Son Organ (1973), Laurenskerk, Rotterdam, The Netherlands/Hauptwerk. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Scarlatti: Sonatas K417, 208, 159, 56, 213, 125, 373, 119, 69, 425, 29, 99, 12, 479, 9, 318, 141 and 32. Yevgeny Sudbin, piano. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
The re-release of the MSR Classics recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin featuring Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir – originally made available in 2008 – provides a welcome opportunity to reconsider some fine-sounding and interestingly interpreted versions of these oft-played pieces. Indeed, “fine-sounding” is a particularly good description: originally recorded in 2000-2002 (the partitas) and in 2007 (the sonatas), all the works remain sonically distinguished. Recorded in a church in Iceland, the pieces all offer a sense of resonance, of spaciousness, that is less clean and clear than studio recordings tend to be but far more involving acoustically. The location of the recordings becomes, in effect, part of what they are all about – a circumstance normal for organ music but much less common when it comes to works for solo violin. The listening experience is a more-involving one than is often the case for these works, which have had many, many fine performances but which tend at times to sound a touch academic and emotionally reserved. The recording venue here provides warmth and presence that gives Sigurjónsdóttir’s interpretations an immediacy and emotional connection beyond what her technique itself provides. Indeed, the quality of the recording helps make up for some deficiencies in the interpretations – not in the basic nature of Sigurjónsdóttir’s playing, which is of very high quality, but in the approach she takes to the musical material. It is an eclectic approach, distinguished by very clear phrasing and by stylistic variation that sounds historically informed at times, modern in phrasing at others, virtuosic in some cases, carefully pieced-together in others. The basic violin tone – Sigurjónsdóttir uses a modern violin and bow – is fairly thin, and the intensity of performance is generally set at “medium” and kept there. That is, the coloristic elements of these works are downplayed by Sigurjónsdóttir, who opts for bringing out the water-clear nature of the music at the expense of its underlying emotional content. Her fine and flexible bowing technique is a positive, but her tendency to break all chords upwards instead of following the melody is at best arguable. Sigurjónsdóttir varies tempos and keeps them flexible without introducing too much unwarranted rubato, but her treatment of these six works as an integral unit – and of the movements within each one as integral to that specific one – results in a kind of flatness, a comparative lack of variety both within the sonatas and partitas and among the six members of the set as a whole. The sonatas and partitas are in fact quite diverse, and the differences among their movements lead to a sense of diversity-within-diversity. It is this element that is, if not missing, then downplayed in Sigurjónsdóttir’s performance; yet the sheer quality of the playing, and the sound with which it is recorded, make this a very worthwhile two-CD set even though from time to time it lacks both warmth and a certain degree of contrapuntal clarity.
The second Todd Fickley recording of Bach’s organ music for MSR Classics possesses the same basic fascinations and oddities as the first. Most of the works here are familiar ones. They are the Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 545; Chorales “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott,” BWV 720, “Nun Danket Alle Gott,” BWV 657, and “Von Gott Will Ich Nicht Lassen,” BWV 658; Trio Sonata No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 526; Bach’s version of Vivaldi’s two-violin concerto in A minor, Op. 3, No. 8, BWV 593; Sechs Choräle von Verschiedener Art (“Schübler” Chorales), BWV 645-650; and Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540. What is highly unusual here, though, is the way in which these performances represent a collaboration between contemporary technology and the use of a traditional organ. The CD is a showcase for “virtual pipe organ” software called Hauptwerk. As with the earlier volume in this series, a visit to www.hauptwerk.com is worthwhile for anyone considering purchase of this disc, because the software itself is fascinating and its concept unusual enough to merit some serious thought about the differences between real pipe organs and digital keyboards that reproduce organ sounds. That reproduction is generally poor. Yes, the ease of use of a readily portable digital keyboard is inarguable, and for many people, the difference in sound between what such a keyboard generates and what pipe organs produce is meaningless when it comes to typical hymns and other church music – the primary pieces for which organs are nowadays used. Great organ music, however – definitely including that by Bach – inevitably sounds constricted and compromised when performed on a typical digital organ. Hauptwerk intends to change that by a complex and well-thought-out sampling technique designed to mimic, in great detail, the exact sound of specific great organs of the world. Whether the one that Fickley plays here is great is a matter of opinion. It was built as recently as 1973, but it is historically inspired and has a fine, clear sound that goes well with the Bach works on this disc. Fickley is not actually playing the Marcussen & Son instrument, though: he is performing on the Hauptwerk version of that organ, created digitally and reproduced through modern electronic means. On a strictly musical basis, Fickley’s performances are again fine, historically aware although not imbued with all elements of historic performance practices. The actual sound of the music is fine as well, and largely indistinguishable from the sound of a pipe organ. This second volume of The Bach Project raises the same intriguing questions as the first. Old organs, no matter how often updated and how well maintained, have inevitable quirks, reflected in clicks, balky responses, extraneous noises, and other odd little operating sounds. The Hauptwerk approach eliminates these: it samples, very accurately, the exact sound made by an organ’s pipes, but not the organist’s technique in eliciting those sounds. Indeed, the whole notion is to let modern organists, wherever located, employ their technique on virtual copies of great organs located somewhere else. But is the absence of old instruments’ age-related elements a good thing? Do the difficulties of playing the old pipe organs make them sound better or worse? Do those difficulties produce a more-authentic listening experience, or one with which extraneous elements constantly interfere? A listener’s response to these philosophical questions will have a great deal to do with his or her enjoyment of, or disappointment in, Fickley’s second Hauptwerk recording, just as was the case with his first one.
Authenticity is not a question when it comes to Yevgeny Sudbin’s performance of 18 Scarlatti sonatas on a new recording from BIS. These readings are emphatically and rather proudly inauthentic, using the full resources of a modern piano in ways unthinkable and unmatchable on the harpsichords for which Scarlatti wrote and whose workings he understood so well (as the numerous hand-crossings in his middle-period sonatas show with exceptional clarity). Sudbin’s SACD sounds wonderful in a way quite different from the CD of Sigurjónsdóttir’s violin performances: here the church where the recording was done, St. George’s in Bristol, United Kingdom, has a very different sonic palette, and one that serves the contrapuntal nature of the sonatas particularly well. Indeed, Sudbin’s readings gain considerably from the care with which they are recorded – the piano is not a contrapuntal instrument, but counterpoint is crucial to these sonatas, and the recording itself is as responsible as the performer is for bringing it out when using an instrument other than the one for which the works were created. It has been a decade since Sudbin last recorded Scarlatti for BIS, but the passage of time has not led to significant changes in his interpretations, which are poised, very adeptly fingered, and paced with a sure sense of musical comprehension and a feeling for the sonatas’ varied colors. The sequence of the sonatas here is clearly a matter of Sudbin’s personal taste: there is nothing chronological about it and therefore no sense of the ways in which Scarlatti developed techniques and approaches as his set of 555 sonatas progressed. Instead, Sudbin looks for works in contrasting or complementary keys and moods, most often alternating major-key and minor-key pieces but in three cases offering minor-key sonatas back to back (K 56 in C minor/K 213 in D minor; K99 in C minor/K12 in G minor; K141 in D minor/K32 also in D minor, the final pairing on the disc). There are two back-to-back major-key pairs – K208 in A/K159 in C and K425 in G/K29 in D), but it is the minor-key sonatas that lend a certain degree of weight and depth to the overall recital even though in fact the major/minor split is nearly an even one (eight in major keys, 10 in minor). The harmony-friendly elements of the piano do not make a particularly good overlay for these counterpoint-focused sonatas: even when the works are played with considerable technical skill, it is technical pianistic skill, not the skill for which Scarlatti called. That makes this a (+++) recording for listeners primarily interested in hearing Scarlatti’s music as the composer himself intended it to be heard – but those who are fond of Sudbin’s pianism, and in particular those who own his decade-old Scarlatti disc, will deem this a (++++) recording and find it a real pleasure to hear.