Monday, September 16, 2019

Kopatchinskaja’s Debut Album with Camerata Bern

from the Web page for the album being discussed

It would be fair to say that violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja is one of the most adventurous performers on the concert circuit. I first encountered her back when I was writing for Through my contact with Naxos of America, I had the opportunity to write about her 2012 Naïve album of three violin concertos all by Hungarian composers. In order of appearance on the album, these were Béla Bartók, Peter Eötvös, and György Ligeti, all conducted by Eötvös. I was delighted by the “three ages” approach to the programming of this album and could not have been more pleased when it was nominated for the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category for the 2014 GRAMMY Awards. (I was not surprised when the award went to John Corigliano’s percussion concerto; but, for that particular round of awards, my own preference went to Magnus Lindberg’s second piano concerto!)

Kopatchinskaja fell off my radar until 2016, when Sony Classical released a recording of her performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35 violin concerto in D major with Teodor Currentzis conducting the MusicAeterna orchestra. To call this an “over the top” performance would be the height of understatement. I came away with the impression that both Kopatchinskaja and Currentzis were going for notoriety. If so, then they succeeded admirably in their goal; but I was more than a little irked that they did so at Tchaikovsky’s expense. Nevertheless, Kopatchinskaja clearly got on a lot of radars, one of which led to her being appointed Music Director of the 2018 Ojai Music Festival, just before she began her tenure with the Camerata Bern in the fall of that same year.

This past Friday Alpha Classics released her debut album in her new capacity with Camerata Bern. As her Wikipedia page explains, Kopatchinskaja is very interested in “concept programming” (my phrase, not that of a Wikipedia author); and her new release is definitely a “concept album.” The title is Time & Eternity; and, on the first page of the track listing, just below the album title, Kopatchinskaja is credited with the “concept.”

While the very use of the noun “concept” puts me into “Spock raises left eyebrow” mode, I have to say that the two “main events” on this album definitely make it worth “the price of admission” (as P. T. Barnum might have said). Much of the booklet is devoted to Frank Martin’s six-movement Polyptyque suite for violin and two small string orchestras. The suite was inspired by a set of six panels all based on the Passion of Christ by Duccio di Buoninsegna in the early fourteenth century. The panels were installed at the Maestà Altar in Siena; but, more importantly, they have all been reproduced in the accompanying booklet. Context is further enhanced by inserting transcriptions for string orchestra of chorale movements from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 245 setting of the Passion text from the Gospel of John. Furthermore, the movement depicting the Crucifixion is followed by “Crux,” a trio for violin, timpani, and bells by the Czech composer Luboš Fišer, as a substitute for a Bach chorale. We shall never know how Martin (who died in 1974) would have reacted to this treatment of his music; but, as a synthesis of music and image, it comes across highly effectively.

The other major work on the album is Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s “Concerto funebre,” also scored for solo violin and string orchestra. I first came to know this concerto because Gil Shaham included it in the first volume of a series he called 1930s Violin Concertos. As the booklet notes by Kopatchinskaja and Lukas Fierz observed, this concerto was composed “in 1939 out of a sense of outrage and despair at the Nazi terror in Germany.” The chorale form also contributes to the overall structure; and the final movement is based on a Russian song of mourning for the victims of the failed 1905 Revolution, thematic material that subsequently surfaced in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 103 (eleventh) symphony, a programmatic account of that failed revolution. This concerto is also embedded in context, preceded by Jewish music of mourning as arranged by John Zorn and followed by the “Kyrie” movement from the Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut, again transcribed for string orchestra.

My only quibble is that, as concepts go, this album seems to be structured around perspectives on death (without embellishing those perspectives with thoughts about the afterlife), leading me to wonder if the overall title Time & Eternity is a bit displaced, if not downright deceptive. The fact is that this album does not need a “programmatic” title to orient the listener. Between the ideas behind the compositions by Hartmann and Martin and the images that inspired Martin, there is more than enough in this package to allow the listener to “get the message.”

I am reminded by one of the Hasidic sayings that Martin Buber included in his Ten Rungs collection. It is presented in question-and-answer form. The topic is the First Commandment, and the question is, “Why is God cited for taking us out of Egypt? Why does it not describe God as the creator of Heaven and Earth?” Buber cites a Hasidic description how man would have reacted to the latter alternative:
Then man might have said, “Heaven—that’s too much for me!” So God said to man: “I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now you come here and listen to me!”
Both Hartmann and Martin have composed first-rate come-here-and-listen-to-me music that needs no assistance from a “concept title!”

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