December 08, 2016


Bach: The Six Partitas for Harpsichord from the “Clavier-Übung” I, BWV 825-830. Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Sono Luminus. $19.99 (3 CDs).

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Solo Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3; Shostakovich: Three Fantastic Dances. Linus Roth, violin; José Gallardo, piano. Challenge Classics. $18.99.

Classical Banjo: The Perfect Southern Art. John Bullard, banjo. Bullard Music. $14.99.

21st Century Spanish Guitar, Volume 2. Adam Levin, guitar. Naxos. $12.99.

     People who think there is anything standardized about classical-music performances, or that there is one and only one “right” way to play this music, have never heard readings like these. Jory Vinikour’s robust, bouncy handling of Bach’s Six Partitas for Harpsichord for Sono Luminus is thoroughly unexpected and convincing from the start. Vinikour looks above all to the fact that these works are made up of dance movements, and if the dances are often idealized – along the lines of those in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, if not to the same extent – that does not stop them from having rhythmic clarity and a certain regularity of beat underlying their contrapuntal complexity. Vinikour’s tempos are well-chosen, his overall approach dramatic and theatrical, his expressive language well-attuned to the works’ colors – and he is unafraid to make these pieces playful as well as profound. The sheer breeziness of the opening Praeambulum of Partita No. 5 is engaging here, the very expansive Allemande of No. 4 is wonderfully serene, the dramatic opening Toccata of No. 6 proceeds with magisterial seriousness, the oddly accented Sarabande of No. 3 is exceptionally graceful – there are beauties aplenty in all six works, and there is not a single movement that seems ill-paced, balanced indelicately or in any way stodgy. In some ways that is the most remarkable thing about what Vinikour does here: he removes the stodginess of tradition from Bach, treating each of these six extended harpsichord suites as a wholly individual creation while still showing clearly that they all come from the same mind. His differentiation of individual movements is equally impressive: for example, Partita No. 3 has a Burlesca followed by a Scherzo, and both words mean “joke,” but the humor is very different between the two and very effectively highlighted here. From the lyricism of the Praeludium opening of No. 1, to the considerable virtuosity needed for the Capriccio of No. 2 and the Corrente movements of Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 6, to the structurally unusual Sarabande of No. 6, Vinikour’s readings are striking, highly involving and intelligent both in concept and in execution. There are many first-rate recordings of these old but ever-new harpsichord suites, making it always harder to imagine yet another top-of-the-line approach that is non-duplicative. But such imagination, if difficult, is not impossible, as Vinikour here proves to sublime effect.

     The personal nature of Linus Roth’s approach to the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg is evident as well, in a new Challenge Classics release featuring Weinberg’s three solo-violin sonatas interspersed with violin-and-piano versions of the Three Fantastic Dances by Weinberg’s friend, colleague and longtime supporter, Shostakovich. The CD actually begins with the first Shostakovich dance (the transcription of the dances is by Harry Glickman); it serves as a kind of curtain-raiser, with the other two dances being palate cleansers of a sort between the substantial servings of Weinberg’s sonatas. All the Weinberg sonatas date from the 1960s and 1970s, specifically 1964, 1967 and 1978. The first is a five-movement, 26-minute piece in which slow-to-moderate tempos dominate. The work is characterized by substantial dissonance and frequent wide leaps that are challenging to play and to listen to; its fastest portion, a Presto section that opens the finale, scurries about very speedily indeed until the movement’s later Adagio segment returns the piece to its essentially contemplative core. Sonata No. 2 is in seven short movements – the whole work lasts just 18 minutes – and has a lighter overall flavor than No. 1; but there is enough Shostakovich-style sarcasm here to show the clear kinship of the two composers, especially in the third movement, marked Presto agitato, and the concluding Vivace marcato. Weinberg explores but does not exploit the outer limits of violin technique and violin sound in these two sonatas, and Roth plays them with exemplary tone and a sure sense of pacing and rhythm that together bring out the works’ structures to very good effect. Sonata No. 3 is an even bigger challenge to perform and hear: the longest of the sonatas (27 minutes), it is written in a single movement that gives the violinist no time to rest and allows listeners little aural respite. A work of anguish and dismay – dedicated to the memory of Weinberg’s father, who was also a composer and who died in the Holocaust – this sonata reaches for and eventually finds a measure of tenderness, which Roth brings out to very fine (and rather surprising) effect; but it is a tough work to absorb and not one that reveals itself fully without multiple hearings. Roth’s technical and interpretative skill combine to reveal the depths of this sonata and of all the Weinberg works on this CD.

     Yet nothing Vinikour or Roth offers is quite as surprising as what John Bullard provides on a CD that ostensibly contains familiar music by Bach, Telemann, Handel, Schumann, Grieg and (somewhat less familiarly) Alessandro Marcello. Bullard plays the banjo. Yes, the banjo. Approaching this disc with considerable skepticism is entirely justifiable, but Bullard will win over all but the most dyed-in-the-wool skeptics with what he does here. The sensitivity, tonal color and outright beauty that Bullard extracts from his five-string instrument – and thus pulls from (or puts into) the music – is nothing short of astonishing. The ornamentation of the Baroque works is flawless, the lyricism of the Romantic ones surprising and highly effective, and the impossible is made possible when, for example, Bullard performs a transcription of Schumann’s Three Romances for Oboe and Piano with restraint, sensitivity and exceptional beauty. In the D minor concerto by Marcello, Bullard’s banjo sounds like a lute and mingles wonderfully with archlute and Baroque violin and cello: the CD includes excellent backup performances by a variety of fine musicians. Telemann’s Partita No. 5, another minor-key work (E minor), also lets Bullard bring out a surprising amount of warmth and subtlety from an instrument that is generally considered to have little of either. Handel’s Trio Sonata, Op. 2, No. 8, is yet another piece in a minor key (G minor), and here Bullard blends the banjo to exceptional effect with the other instruments – the engineering of the recording, which is excellent, also deserves some credit for this. Grieg’s six Lyric Pieces are not quite as successful as the other works on the CD, although the banjo does have a pleasing folk-instrument resonance for the concluding Halling. On the other hand, the two Bach works here deserve to be called revelatory. The fugue from Sonata No. 1, BWV 1001, not only has the requisite Baroque sound – again, that lute-like resonance – but also shows Bullard’s command of form to quite an extraordinary degree. It is actually hard to remember that this is a banjo, of all things, playing this music. And the thrice-familiar Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, the conclusion of the cantata BWV 147, is a remarkable surprise. It is heard here with full choir and strings as well as Bullard’s banjo, and sounds altogether new and different from what listeners are likely to expect, a re-exploration to top all the re-explorations on this remarkable CD. This is a recording that reexamines a much-maligned folk instrument that sounds – in the right hands – as if it can do practically anything. Bullard’s hands are clearly the right ones.

     Bullard plays guitar, too, but classical guitar is, unlike classical banjo, already well-established among performers. Brand-new music for classical guitar is less familiar, though, a matter that a planned four-CD Naxos series featuring Adam Levin has set out to remedy. Not all the music on the second volume is equally intriguing, however, and in the absence of the curiosity value of Bullard’s CD, this release gets a (+++) rating for most listeners – although guitar players will likely find it an attractive source of potential new material for their recitals, assuming they can perform at anything like the very high level at which Levin plays. Eight of the nine works here are world première recordings: Caprichos No. 11: Abstractions of Granados (2014) by Leonardo Balada (born 1933); Interiores (2010) by Jesús Torres (born 1965); Autumn Elegy (2012) by Marc López Godoy (born 1967); Ivory Tower (2013) by Luis de Pablo (born 1930); I’ve Got You Under My String (2013) by Eduardo Soutullo (born 1968); Upon 21 (2012) by Jacobo Durán-Loriga (born 1958); Tres piezas para guitarra (2011) by Benet Casablancas (born 1933); and Orion (2010) by Juan Manuel Ruiz (born 1968). The only work that has been recorded before is Dos cantares (2010) by Antón García Abril (born 1933). Certainly there are some impressive pieces here. Highlights include Torres’ exploration of the guitar’s capabilities of both inward focus and extroversion, Godoy’s use of the instrument to evoke deep sadness before he dispels it with brilliant figurations, and Durán-Loriga’s evocation of Baroque dances (which compares interestingly with Bullard’s banjo performance of actual Baroque works). Other material here is, on the other hand, a good deal more mundane: Casablancas’ contribution is derivative in sound and structure, Balada’s homage to Granados is unexceptional, Pablo’s piece is rather bland, and Ruiz’s extended work plumbs the guitar’s technical depths and is highly challenging to perform but not especially rewarding to hear. This Naxos series is a welcome one that will be of considerable value to guitarists, but only listeners who simply cannot get enough of classical guitar music will likely enjoy sitting through the 71 minutes of this second volume.

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