May 24, 2018
(++++) STRINGS AND OTHER THINGS
Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014-1019. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: Triple Concerto; Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano. Anne Gastinel, cello; Nicholas Angelich, piano; Gil Shaham, violin; Andreas Ottensamer, clarinet; Frankfurt Radio Symphony conducted by Paavo Järvi. Naïve. $16.99.
The Cedille label is in essence a narrowly focused one: it is a nonprofit focused on music created by and/or performed by artists in the Chicago area. But its new release of Bach’s violin-and-harpsichord sonatas provides powerful evidence that even a regionally focused organization can produce something truly world-class. This is a recording for which it is hard to muster enough superlatives: it is the equal of any version of these works currently available, and is indeed at the very top of the available performances – in fact, its bargain price (two CDs priced as one) could readily make it the first choice for anyone interested in this repertoire who does not own the music already. Historically aware performances are often so larded with explanatory material, so bogged down in explaining why things were done this way even though nowadays they are done that way, that the music itself gets buried under the scholarship. Not so here: Rachel Barton Pine, whose 2015 Cedille recording of Vivaldi’s concertos for viola d’amore showed that she has a marvelously firm understanding of Baroque style and its expressive possibilities, offers playing that is even more poised and involving here. She and Jory Vinikour are first and foremost communicative musicians, with a remarkable sense of give-and-take and such joy in what they produce together that it is hard to imagine any listener being unaffected by the emotional impact of these readings. Yes, emotional impact: this is as far from dry, academic Bach as it is possible to go, yet the performances are so in tune (sorry about that) with Bach’s time and Bach’s era’s performance practices that they could be described as “learned” (two syllables) if that word did not have negative connotations such as “dry” and “boring.” These performances are neither.
Pine and Vinikour do not make a big deal about the historical authenticity they bring to this music. Interested listeners can turn to the enclosed booklet to find out that Pine plays a 1770 Nicola Gagliano violin with Gamut strings, and uses a replica bow made by Louis Bégin, while Vinikour here uses a harpsichord built in 2012 after a model from 1769. This is worth knowing, but wholly irrelevant to the effect of the music. These are marvelously varied works, colorful and packed with emotions ranging from the nearly lugubrious to the bright and forthright. Each individual movement of each sonata is a gem in its own way, not least because the pervasive use of fugue here seems far less studied and scholarly – in these performances – than it generally does when Bach is played. The sonatas are in six different keys, three major and three minor, and their movements are in far more keys than those, with middle movements frequently ending on the dominant to pull performers and listeners directly into those that follow. The richness of the sonatas is quite extraordinary. Consider just the opening movements. The first sonata (in B minor) is distinguished by its somber opening Adagio; the second (in A) starts with a movement marked Dolce that is indeed sweet, not in Romantic terms but in a manner more courtly; the third (in E) begins with an extended Adagio featuring highly ornamented violin passages; the fourth (in C minor) opens with a lovely Largo in the form of a siciliano; the fifth (in F minor) starts with the longest movement in any of the sonatas, a deeply introspective and solemn Largo; and the sixth (in G) opens, surprisingly, with an Allegro, a bright and upbeat start to the only one of the sonatas in five rather than four movements – and the only sonata featuring a movement for harpsichord alone. Bach may have originally intended this sixth sonata, BWV 1019, to start with a slow movement, as all the others do: there is a Cantabile in G, BWV 1019a, that is one of his most wonderful inspirations, and Pine and Vinikour offer it at the end of the set as an appendix. Had Bach used it in the sonata, it would have been the longest movement in any of these works and would likely have overbalanced the whole piece; this may well be the reason he omitted it. Pine and Vinikour give the movement a kind of celestial ethereality that makes it in some ways the capstone of the whole sonata sequence. But every work here has its many pleasures. These are basically trio sonatas, although for two instruments, because Bach treats the two hands at the harpsichord as independent much of the time – a technique that, by the way, absolutely requires use of a harpsichord, not a piano. It is simply amazing to hear Pine and Vinikour bringing out Bach’s individual melodic lines, keeping the sparkling canons and fugues crystal-clear while blending the instruments’ sounds when called for. This is, by any measure, a top-notch performance of some marvelous music – a worthy addition to the collection of anyone who loves Bach’s music as it should sound, and can sound only in the hands of the very best interpreters.
The Bach sonatas date to the early part of the 18th century, about 1720. By the late part of the same century, the “trio” concept no longer involved Bach’s contrapuntal sleight of hand and was attached, in the Classical era, strictly to works using three instruments. An early Beethoven contribution to the form, dating to 1797, is the charming and unusually scored Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 11. The performance by Andreas Ottensamer, Anne Gastinel and Nicholas Angelich on the Naïve label is a particularly pleasing one: it sounds as if the performers genuinely enjoyed themselves when making the recording. This trio is sometimes played with violin rather than clarinet, but it sounds much more interesting – and is unique in its scoring among Beethoven’s works – when the woodwind is used. This is unassuming music, meant to appeal to popular tastes of the time: the finale is a set of variations on a then-very-popular tune that was later used by Hummel and Paganini as well. Ottensamer, Gastinel and Angelich make no attempt to give the trio a grander scale or greater sense of importance than Beethoven intended: their playing is precise, light, and beautifully blended. The Op. 11 trio predates by six years a “trio” of another sort, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, which also gets a first-rate reading on this CD. Interestingly, given Beethoven’s prowess as a pianist, it is really the cello that strides forth most strongly in the Triple Concerto, introducing the themes of all three movements and essentially shaping the direction in which the music goes. The cello writing is not very idiomatic, spending a lot of time in the instrument’s higher register, but it is that very characteristic that makes a well-played version of the Triple Concerto so interesting: like the Op. 11 trio, this concerto has scoring that is unique among Beethoven’s works. The overall structure of the Triple Concerto is unusual, too: there is a very long first movement, which is normal for concertos, but then there is a very short second movement – little more than an interlude – followed by quite an expansive finale that actually sounds as if it could have gone on even longer had Beethoven not been busy with Fidelio at the time (the conclusion of the finale is somewhat perfunctory). Gastinel and Angelich interact with Gil Shaham at least as seamlessly as they do with Ottensamer: the three solo instruments weave in and out of the material with strength, elegance and suitable deference to each other – which is to say that none of these virtuoso performers feels the need to upstage the others, and all are willing to handle the music as a sort of updated concerto grosso. In addition, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Paavo Järvi provides just the right sort of accompaniment for this unusual work, neither swamping the soloists nor underplaying the importance of the orchestral forces by staying too far in the background. All in all, this “double triple” Beethoven CD offers highly satisfying readings of two works that are somewhat off the beaten path where this composer is concerned, and very much worth hearing when they are performed as sensitively as they are here.