February 20, 2020


Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Tomás Cotik, violin. Centaur. $16 (2 CDs).

Ned Rorem/McNeil Robinson: Improvisations on the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. McNeil Robinson, organ. Delos. $14.98.

     The notion that Baroque music is bland and emotionless, to be performed metronomically and with a focus purely on form, is an old but long-discredited one that becomes harder and harder to imagine anyone ever believing each time a new and excellent recording of a staple of the Baroque repertoire emerges. Tomás Cotik is the latest performer to lay to rest the old canards about the Baroque, doing so in a highly thoughtful and thoroughly satisfying recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin – in which Cotik makes some highly personalized decisions about playing the music. The result of those decisions is a hybrid performance: Baroque bow, modern violin, softer-than-usual strings, tuning to today’s 440 Hz rather than the 415 Hz common in Bach’s time (although at that time there were actually many different “A” tunings in use). The underlying reasons for Cotik’s various decisions are part of a series of ongoing musical/academic debates/discussions that are unlikely ever to lead to consensus. For instance, Cotik’s near-complete lack of vibrato is not only historically correct but also a function of the Baroque bow itself: it simply is not possible to produce modern-style near-constant vibrato with it. Similarly, the way Cotik brings forth the lightness and dancelike elements of these works is due in part to the bow’s characteristics, which make those effects easier to achieve than they are with a modern bow. The actual sound of the music is partly a function of using A440 rather than A415, which is a semitone lower: this tuning decision is very much a matter of taste, since performers accustomed to more-modern music may actually have difficulty playing in a way that sounds constantly a semitone flat to them. But all these elements, as interesting as they can be to the analytically inclined, take a back seat to the basic question of how the music sounds at any given time. And in Cotik’s hands (and beneath his fingers), it sounds very fine indeed. There is a sprightliness about these performances that is immediately winning, and at the same time there is all the seriousness one might wish for in the deeper and more-complex movements. The famed Chaconne of Partita No. 2 is lighter than usual but scarcely ebullient, its contrapuntal complexity highlighted by the care with which Cotik brings out its various components. To cite just one other example, the highly complex Fuga of Sonata No. 3, which leans (among other things) on the performer’s ability to perform quadruple stops, is neither heavy nor academic-sounding here, and its considerable length (only the Chaconne is longer) makes complete sense as a way to work through its musical arguments and overall development. Cotik, who uses less ornamentation than do many other performers, allows emotion into the music as appropriate, as in the openings of all three sonatas and in the two sarabandes (in Partitas Nos. 1 and 2); he also permits, even encourages matters to become almost frothy in some of the quick sections (Presto of Sonata No. 1, Gigue of Partita No. 3). What is evident throughout this Centaur recording is that Cotik has thought long and hard about every aspect of playing this music, from where to follow historically informed practice closely (and where not to) to when to show the music’s emotive power (and when to keep matters much more restrained). There is no “best” recording of these works – and no definitive way to answer the many questions they pose for performer and listener alike. There are, however, many excellent approaches to the music, each convincing on its own terms. Cotik’s are very decidedly within that distinguished group.

     There are two distinguished musical figures involved in a new Delos release of Improvisations on the Fourteen Stations of the Cross: Ned Rorem (born 1923), whose themes are the basis of the performance, and McNeil Robinson (1943-2015), the distinguished organist whose March 21, 2006 improvisations are recorded and memorialized on the disc. Readings of text introduce each of the 14 tracks, setting a scene that Robinson interprets and realizes with consummate skill: the “falling” nature of the music in “Jesus falls for the first time” paints a very clear picture of the stumble, for example, while the portentous, echoing dissonances of “Jesus is nailed to the Cross” are simultaneously dramatic and heartfelt. Robinson brings forth considerable tenderness when it is called for, as in “Jesus meets his afflicted mother” before the crucifixion and in “The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother” after it. The concluding “Jesus is laid in the tomb” is suitably solemn, but what comes through most clearly and affectingly in this music is the extent to which this is a human story rather than (or in addition to) a divine one – as in “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,” to which Robinson gives great tenderness, and “Jesus is stripped of his garments,” whose exclamatory passages here seem indicative of all-too-human greed rather than a customary rite of Roman times that is given scriptural significance in the New Testament. Robinson himself surely saw these improvisations and much of his other musical work as serving a spiritual purpose: he was organist and choirmaster at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin for two decades, organist at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City from 1965 until 2012, and also served as organist of the Park Avenue Christian Church. But equally surely, Robinson saw improvisation – at which he was highly skilled – as a purely musical matter, one that could connect listeners with something beyond themselves even without the necessity of conformity to religious orthodoxy. It was on this basis that he served as chairman of the organ departments at the Mannes College of Music and Manhattan School of Music. Improvisations on the Fourteen Stations of the Cross partakes of several elements of Robinson’s life: his sheer musical ability, the quality of his improvisational thinking and playing, and his knowledge of ways to connect the higher purpose of religion with the mundane elements of human life – including the human life of Jesus – in ways that reach out equally to firm believers and to those of less faith or none. This is a very moving CD, as well as one whose musical quality pervades the material and stands, as a result, as a suitable monument to Robinson’s persuasive skill.

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