Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Violin Virtuosity

Back when I was living in Palo Alto, I had a friend in Portola Valley who turned over his house to host a recital by the winner of the annual Irving M. Klein International String Competition every spring. Now that I live in San Francisco, the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco has given me the same opportunity. Today's concert was given by the winner of the first prize in the 2007 competition, Jing Wang, accompanied at the piano by Jeewon Lee. His offering was an hour of full-out virtuosity.

The middle work on the program was also very much the centerpiece of the concert, particularly since it featured Wang unaccompanied. It was the fourth sonata (in E minor) of the Opus 27 of Eugène Ysaÿe, a set of six sonatas for solo violin. These were composed in 1923; and each sonata is dedicated to a personal friend, all of whom were celebrated violinists at that time. The dedicatee for the fourth sonata is Fritz Kreisler, who, himself, was one of the great virtuosos of his time. While the score indicates a classical structure of three movements (Allemanda, Sarabande, Finale), one would be hard put to hear the first two movements in the same terms of the dance forms that Johann Sebastian Bach had in his settings. Indeed, while Ysaÿe may have intended to hide this, the entire sonata sounds like it was heavily influenced by the concluding chaconne from Bach's D minor (BWV 1004) partita for unaccompanied violin, which has a similar tripartite structure. Since, according to the Nimbus notes by Margaret Campbell, Ysaÿe conceived of his Opus 27 project after having heard Joseph Szigeti perform one of Bach's solo sonatas and since, if you count both sonatas and partitas, Bach wrote a total of six of these works, it would not surprise me if a little bit of Bach resides in each of them, implicitly if not explicitly. (His presence in Ysaÿe's second sonata is downright blatant!)

Thanks to Ferruccio Busoni, Bach's chaconne has become of monument of virtuosity for the piano, as well as solo violin. Since Busoni composed his transcription in 1900, it is entirely possible that Ysaÿe was familiar with it and may have taken it as a challenge. If Busoni could "up the ante" of virtuosity by transcribing Bach violin music for piano, Ysaÿe could "raise the stakes further" with a violin solo even more demanding than the one Bach had composed; and I think that this provides a better way of listening to Opus 27, Number 4 than by trying to think in terms of the movements and their labels. I have no idea if this is how Wang approached the work; but his technical execution was so solid and robust that it was almost as if he had summoned (and honored) the spirits of Bach, Busoni, Ysaÿe, and Kreisler.

As I said, this performance assumed the role of centerpiece; but it was far from the highest point of Wang's virtuosity, since, without leaving us much time to catch our breaths, it was followed by Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane," composed around the same time as the Ysaÿe sonatas (1924) for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi. The accompaniment was composed for Luthéal, a piano-like instrument with organ-like stops for a variety of tone colors. One of those options was the sound of the Hungarian cimbalom; and, as its name implies, "Tzigane" is an invocation of the spirit of Hungarian gypsies. For this performance Lee played an ordinary grand piano, but the gypsy spirit was alive and well Actually, the violin plays solo for approximately the first third of the composition; and much of that solo consists of the dark growl of the G string. The work builds from an initial somber darkness to dazzling bright light at a pace that gets wilder and wilder until you expect both performers to collapse.

However, even after performing the Ravel, Wang had not yet exhausted his virtuosity. As an encore he then dashed off "La ronde des lutins," the Opus 25 "Scherzo fantastique" of Antonio Bazzini. Bazzini is late nineteenth century; and this is one of those works that, in its time, set the bar for virtuosity (which Ysaÿe and Ravel then proceeded to raise). "Lutin" is French for "goblin;" so this is one of those works that glorifies the diabolical quality of violin virtuosity made so famous (notorious?) by Niccolò Paganini. This was Wang's "final statement" for his program; and it certainly made his departure of blaze of glory (with a faint whiff of sulfur).

Since I seem to make a habit of accusing San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman of not paying enough attention when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is on a San Francisco Symphony program, I do not want to commit the same sin by ignoring that Wang's program began with Mozart K. 454 B-flat major violin sonata. The catalog of recordings that Jascha Heifetz made for RCA includes only three Mozart sonatas. This sonata is one of them; and he recorded it twice, first in 1936 and again in 1954. (With the exception of Ysaÿe, whose works Heifetz never recorded, this was very much a "Heifetz program" in both substance and spirit.) Mozart composed violin sonatas almost throughout the entirety of his life. This one was composed in 1784, after he had been in Vienna for a few years. In the Köchel catalog it sits right in the middle of those six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn, which means that, to some extent, virtuosity of composition takes precedence over virtuosity of performance. Much of that virtuosity of composition has to do with the way in which the piano provides both accompanying harmonies and one or more melodic voices that engage with the voice of the violin. In this case the performance hinges on the extent to which the melodic voices blend properly without ever obscuring their harmonic context. This was thus the most demanding work on the program for Wang and Lee playing as a well integrated ensemble (even if there were only two of them). The demand was all the greater, since this was the work that began the program; and their joint understanding of Mozart definitely got things off to the best possible start, serving almost as an excellent supplement to last week's "pre-season preview" of the Midsummer Mozart Festival.

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