Almost all of my writing about pianist András Schiff has focused on his work as a soloist, either in recital or on recording. However, when he made his 2000 recording of Franz Schubert’s D. 760 (“Wanderer”) fantasia in C major for ECM New Series, he chose to couple it with the D. 934 fantasia (also in C major) for violin and piano. His violinist was Japanese-born Yuuko Shiokawa, who is primarily active in Europe and is a member of Schiff’s Cappella Andrea Barca:
photograph by Barbara Klemm, courtesy of Universal Music Group
This past Friday ECM New Series released a new album consisting entirely of duo performances by Schiff and Shiokawa, both pictured above. For those with a broad interest in this duo repertoire, the “main attraction” is likely to be Ferruccio Busoni’s Opus 36a (second) sonata in E minor. This performance is flanked by the works of the two composers that probably influenced Busoni most strongly. The album begins with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1016 sonata in E major and concludes with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 96 in G major, the last of his ten sonatas for piano and violin (Beethoven’s preferred ordering).
I suppose I should begin with the disclaimer that, as far as my own listening activities are concerned, I cannot get enough of Busoni. His influence as the teacher of several major composers from the first decades of the twentieth century cannot be overestimated, while his own efforts at composition tend to serve up an intriguing blend of the retrospective and the prospective. Anyone familiar with his catalog will probably resonate with the chord progression that begins the Opus 36a sonata. E minor is established as a dark key of uncertain inquiry; but, by the time the violin enters, the mode is already beginning to shift over to the major.
Busoni’s capacity for bringing multiple points of view to just about any piece of music is most evident in the final movement of this sonata, which is a set of six variations (with a coda) on Bach’s BWV 517 sacred song “Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seelen” (O friend of souls, how good you are to me). This was one of his entries in the 1725 Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, where only the melody and bass lines are notated. Bach clearly expected his wife to provide the inner voices, and Busoni takes that challenge for invention to the next level.
In BWV 1016, on the other hand, the keyboard part has been written out in its entirety. (This is not true of all of the duo sonatas that Bach wrote for violin and keyboard.) As the booklet notes by Misha Donat observe, this is very much a dialog between the two instruments in which each part establishes its own distinctive voice. That spirit of dialog is just as apparent in the Beethoven sonata. Indeed, the back-and-forth exchanges in the first movement almost evoke the spirit of a pupil (the violin) asking questions of the master (the piano, which was probably originally played by Beethoven himself). It would probably be unfair to describe Shiokawa’s rhetoric as submissive; but she brings a suggestion of hesitancy to her gestures that endow them with more personality than we tend to encounter in violinists who take a more “secure” approach to playing this sonata.
This album may have been conceived with the idea of presenting Bach and Beethoven as contexts for listening to Busoni. However, that sword can cut both ways. As one becomes more familiar with Busoni, one can detect how he will influence subsequent listening to Bach and Beethoven!