Those who like “dynamic duos” will be pleased to learn that, at the end of last month, Warner Classics released the first studio album of duo performances by pianist Martha Argerich and violinist Itzhak Perlman. As might be guessed, performers of this stature are hardly strangers to each other; and, just to be accurate about things, the studio tracks are preceded by a recording of Robert Schumann’s Opus 105 (first) sonata for piano and violin made at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on July 30, 1998 (complete with audience applause). However, the remainder of the album was recorded in a series of sessions at the Salle Colonne in Paris that took place at the end of this past March. In order of appearance on the album, the compositions are Schumann’s Opus 73 set of three fantasy pieces for clarinet and piano, composed in 1849 with directions that the clarinet part could be played by violin or cello, the scherzo movement from the “F-A-E” sonata, composed in 1853 by Johannes Brahms as his contribution to a project conceived by Schumann, and Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1017 violin sonata in C minor with accompaniment.
Since Schumann, like Beethoven before him, did, indeed, call his Opus 105 a sonata “for piano and violin,” which is how the piece is listed in the accompanying booklet, it is worth picking a small nit from the Bach selection. The booklet calls this a sonata “for keyboard and violin,” which makes for a seemingly neat symmetry between the opening and closing selections on the album. Nevertheless, the original manuscript, which was written by Bach’s student and son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol, describes the sonata as being for “Violino solo e Cembalo Concertato.” BWV 1017 is the fourth of a set of six with BWV numbers from 1014 to 1019, and figured bass appears in portions of four of those sonatas. However, it is not used in BWV 1017, in which violinist and keyboardist basically act as equal partners. The Altnickol manuscripts have been dated between 1746 and 1758, begun, but not completed, during Bach’s lifetime. Tully Potter’s booklet notes indicate that the title used in the track listing dates from 1724–27 in a version made by Bach’s nephew, Johann Heinrich, described as “his regular Leipzig copyist.” This is clearly an issue of “authenticity” that can be argued at great length by both sides! However, what is important is that the adjective “concertato” indicates that the keyboard is more than just a continuo instrument, frequently, if not all of the time.
This matter is, of course, secondary in comparison with the performance itself. BWV 1017 provides some splendid examples of Bach inventiveness with multiple voices of counterpoint, and those voices are shared by both the violin and the keyboard part. Argerich brings just the right touch to her playing to make sure that all of the voices that she provides are on a level playing field with those performed by Perlman. Thus, as was the case with the ECM New Series recording of all six of the sonatas performed by Michelle Makarski on violin and Keith Jarrett on piano, Perlman and Argerich present an approach that is true to the spirit of Bach without worrying about how important it is to invoke the spirit of the period, so to speak.
On the other hand that “spirit of the period” of Brahms and his mentor Schumann is a much more secure “comfort zone” for both Perlman and Argerich. Both of them have allocated a generous share of their recording efforts to these two composers. The value of this recording, however, is as much their decision to seek out less-performed works by both of these composers as it is one of joining forces in a recording studio.
The Brahms scherzo is the most “oddball” of the selections, particularly since it has been taken out of context. However, the “F-A-E” sonata is seldom performed in its entirely, probably because it sounds like it is the product of a committee (which it was). Schumann’s pupil, Albert Dietrich, contributed the second intermezzo movement that precedes the scherzo; and Schumann himself provided the opening and closing movements. Brahms’ movement is about the only one to be regularly recorded and performed, usually as an encore selection in the latter case; and it definitely holds its own alongside other scherzos that Brahms composed. Both Perlman and Argerich clearly appreciate its merits in their interpretation.
Similarly, none of Schumann’s three violin sonatas get very much attention. These are all late works and are sometimes dismissed as products of the composer’s deteriorating mental state. Nevertheless, each of those sonatas has its own share of imaginative virtues; and Perlman and Argerich definitely make a viable case that Opus 105 deserves more listener attention. Opus 73, on the other hand, dates from 1849, when Schumann was confronting the earliest stages of that deterioration. I have to confess a slight personal bias for the original version, simply because there are several moments when the sharper edges of a clarinet sonority bring darker qualities to the rhetoric than a violin can summon. Perlman and Argerich evoke what amounts to an affectionate encounter of old friends who have been away from each other for a long time. This makes for an engaging listening experience; but my own preferences still tend to lean towards the darker sides of Schumann’s personality and the ways in which he reveals those sides.