I have been following recordings of violinist Vadim Gluzman for over half a decade. my generally positive impressions have much to do with his approach to repertoire, and I first became aware of him in conjunction with his work with composer and pianist Lera Auerbach. Indeed, one of those missed opportunities that I particularly regret was the San Francisco Performances recital in 2004 when the two of them played Auerbach’s Opus 46 set of 24 preludes (in all major and minor keys) for violin and piano.
By way of compensation, I began to look into Gluzman’s recorded repertoire with the Swedish BIS label. This led me to write up my listening experiences for Examiner.com and my describing Gluzman as “representative of a new ‘breed’ of violinists who are not content to settle into the ‘middle-brow’ groove of the ‘standard repertoire.’” Sadly, those experiences took place shortly before my only encounter with Gluzman in performance.
He was one of the soloists for a San Francisco Symphony (SFS) subscription concert entitled Barbary Coast and Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Panama-Pacific Exposition, at which he was required to channel violinists from that historical period, such as Ole Bull, Henryk Wieniawski, and Fritz Kreisler. That “middle-brow” experience reminded me of the famous story about Arnold Schoenberg that Alex Ross recounted in his book The Rest Is Noise. Schoenberg had been invited to a dinner party by his friend Harpo Marx at which Fanny Brice (remember Funny Girl?) walked up to him after a few (or more) drinks and said, “C’mon Professor, play us a tune!”
Gluzman’s latest BIS album came out at the beginning of last month, and it is devoted entirely to the music of Johannes Brahms:
Now, to be fair, while Brahms has left us all with no end of memorable tunes, there is much more to both his symphonic and chamber works than tunes we can whistle and hum with fond satisfaction. By the same count, Gluzman has no trouble summoning up “tune rhetoric,” even if doing it for Auerbach required applying a not-so-thin veneer of irony. Furthermore, the odds are good that all three of those historical violinists that SFS required Gluzman to channel probably knew of and played Brahms Opus 77 violin concerto in D major and at least some of his chamber music.
Nevertheless, listening to this new album, which features Gluzman playing Opus 77 with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Chief Conductor, James Gaffigan, left me with the uneasy feeling that this violinist was just not in his comfort zone. Things were somewhat better with the chamber music selections that filled out the recording, the Opus 78 violin sonata in G major and the WoO 2 scherzo in C minor that Brahms’ contributed to the “F-A-E Sonata,” an effort in which he collaborated with Robert Schumann and Schumann’s pupil Albert Dietrich in creating a sonata to honor Joseph Joachim. One reason why these performances rise above the ordinary is that Gluzman is again accompanied by pianist Angela Yoffe, his partner for his more adventurous chamber music recordings for BIS. When these two get together as a duo, they rise so far above the sorts of “tunes” that make the middle-brow happy that they could probably get Brice’s ghost to rise up and take notice!
Still, I feel a bit disappointed that BIS has released an album that seems to go for middle-brow expectations of the familiar; but those circumstances may have more to do with my failure to pay attention to announcements of such releases.