January 15, 2015
(++++) WHEN THE VIOLIN SOARS
Schubert: Sonatas for Violin and Piano in D, D. 384; A minor, D. 385; and G minor, D. 408. Tomas Cotik, violin; Tao Lin, piano. Centaur. $16.99.
Bach: Violin Sonata No. 3, BWV 1005; Telemann: Fantasias for Solo Violin in B-flat, B minor and D; Schubert: Ländler, D. 370, 374, 355 and 640; Piazzolla: Tango Études Nos. 1-6. Tomas Cotik, violin. Centaur. $16.99.
Insightful and captivating, the performances of three Schubert sonatas by Tomas Cotik and Tao Lin give the lie to the notion that Schubert was never as fully involved in his works for violin as in, say, his songs and symphonies. True, some performances make the violin works seem rather superficial, their performance difficulties relatively arbitrary, their undoubted tunefulness less at the service of pervasive lyricism than in other Schubert pieces. What Cotik and Lin do so well on a new Centaur CD is to show that these impressions are in fact performance-related rather than inherent in the music. These three posthumously published sonatas – for whose recording Cotik is producer as well as performer – sing beautifully here. Written in 1816, when Schubert was just 19 years old, they were long regarded as sonatinas, having been so labeled when Anton Diabelli’s firm published them in 1836; and they do seem to have been aimed at amateur players, while the later Rondo brillant in B minor, D. 895, and the imposing Fantasy in C, D. 934, are virtuoso pieces of a decidedly higher and more-challenging caliber. But what Cotik and Lin show is that even these comparatively straightforward, unproblematic pieces sound wonderful in the right hands and with the right sensitivity to period performance style – which is here in abundance. These three sonatas date to the same time as Symphony No. 4, which Schubert called “Tragic” (although “Pathetic,” in the sense of pathos, would probably be a more-apt title). That minor-key work clearly shows the influence of Beethoven, which is quite apparent in Schubert’s symphonies and might have been expected in his violin-and-piano music as well – indeed, nine of Beethoven’s 10 violin sonatas were published by 1805, and the last one appeared in 1816, when Schubert wrote these three sonatas. Yet these works, especially the artless-sounding D. 384 in D, reach back past Beethoven to Mozart, with the violin largely subordinated to the piano. The sonatas thus come across as lesser Schubert – but as Cotik and Lin show, that by no means justifies their relative neglect by performers and audiences alike. The performers’ straightforward, light handling of D. 384 gives way in the two longer and altogether stronger minor-key sonatas to readings of greater depth and intensity, befitting pieces that sound more inspired and are structurally stronger and more interesting (especially the A minor work, D. 385). Cotik and Lin have clearly studied the performance practices of Schubert’s time carefully (tempos, vibrato, expression marks, piano pedal use, accentuation, and a host of others); but rather than turn their performances into mannered or straitlaced readings, those studies seem to have inspired both violinist and pianist to genuinely involving encounters with this unfairly neglected music. The result is exhilarating music-making, with all the accoutrements of encountering previously unknown works and the rather startling realization that these sonatas are not at all unknown – they are just not known to be as good, as effective and as musically and emotionally satisfying as they are here.
Cotik alone, on another Centaur disc for which the violinist also is producer as well as performer, is at least as impressive as Cotik with Lin. The solo program he offers is wide-ranging and not entirely connected: the works showcase different eras, different performance styles and requirements, and different forms and levels of emotional impact. But if this renders the CD somewhat uncomfortable to hear straight through, it encourages listeners to hear the disc’s different elements at different times. And all those elements are rewarding, albeit in distinct ways. The primary focus of the CD is the Baroque, and Cotik does a remarkable job of presenting and balancing the multiple lines of Bach’s sonata BWV 1005 while also making three Telemann fantasias for solo violin sing. Cotik’s decision to use a modern violin with a Baroque bow is an arguable one, and not all listeners will accept his arguments for doing so, but in terms of how the Bach and Telemann works sound, this choice makes a great deal of aural sense – and is intriguing as well. None of these pieces has ever sounded quite like this before. Cotik does not hesitate to take faster Telemann movements very quickly indeed, with the result that the contrasting slow movements seem broader and more expansive than they otherwise would. In the Bach, the second-movement fugue is particularly impressive: it is Bach’s longest for any instrument, and its polyphonic passage with harmonic rhythm twice as fast as in the rest of the fugue is complex in the extreme and very difficult to bring off successfully. Cotik handles it beautifully, with tremendous clarity of line and evenness of tone. His playing is equally fine in the other three movements: the opening movement’s surprising dissonances make perfect sense here, the third movement’s pastoral simplicity shines forth after the fugue’s tremendous complexity, and the virtuoso finale whirls to a wonderful conclusion. The biggest problem here is that this sonata is taken so far out of context: it is the fifth part of a six-part work, the Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1001-1006, and was never intended as a standalone piece. Perhaps Cotik will record all these sonatas and partitas in the future – a possibility worth serious consideration. The Telemann fantasias, as pleasant as they are, are considerably lighter fare than the Bach. Lighter too are the remaining, non-Baroque offerings on this disc. Cotik says the four sets of Schubert Ländler he plays here have never been recorded before – and given the amount of dance music flitting about in Schubert’s time, that may well be the case. These are very brief pieces indeed: there are nine in D. 370, 11 in D. 374, eight in D. 355 and two in D. 640, a total of 30 dances in 21 minutes. The rhythmic and harmonic connections between these pieces and those of Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss Sr. are clear, and the works themselves are straightforward and pleasant – trifles, yes, but delicious ones.
Yet the Schubert dances are not the “encore” items on this disc. That role is filled by the six Tango Études by Ástor Piazzolla, the Argentine composer and bandoneon player who almost single-handedly brought the tango out of the dance hall and into the concert hall. Cotik himself is Argentine, but it would be simplistic and rather prejudicial to say that he has Piazzolla’s music in his blood – better to note simply that he plays these works highly idiomatically, with understanding that approaches the intuitive. Existing in multiple versions and heard as often on flute as on violin, these pieces explore elements of the tango in considerable detail, requiring not only outright virtuosity and attention to rhythmic nuance but also considerable musicality and a willingness to see the tango as being every bit as legitimate a classical-music dance form as the minuet, gigue or sarabande. What Cotik does so well here is to avoid “playing down” to the music – the performance equivalent of talking down to someone in a discussion or debate. Cotik respects the music. He is quite comfortable with some of the tango’s cruder elements, which Piazzolla incorporated (often, admittedly, in a somewhat smoothed-out form) instead of trying to gloss them over. The “study” elements of these works – parts of which are quite difficult to play – are apparent in Cotik’s readings, but there is nothing academic about the overall effect of this rendition. Indeed, Cotik shows, as Piazzolla intended to show, that the tango is just as valid a canvas for technical study and attractive music-making as are other dances. Listeners may wish to listen to this CD as four “mini-concerts” – Bach, Telemann, Schubert and Piazzolla – rather than as a continuous single recital: a straight-through hearing is emotionally and aurally rather exhausting because of the sheer volume of music here (80 minutes), the very considerable variety of the material, and the multiple fascinations brought forth by Cotik’s interpretations and technical skill.