Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shaham Surmounts the Challenge of Unaccompanied Bach

By Erica Miner

For a violinist, no greater or more pleasurable challenge exists than to tackle the six unaccompanied Bach Sonatas and Partitas. Ordinarily a recitalist will perform one of these magnificent works in a single program. 

As part of his Solo Bach Project, which takes him to some of the country’s leading venues, award winning violinist Gil Shaham pushed the envelope by programming three of these works in one evening at the La Jolla Music Society ( Sonata No. 3 in C major; Partita No. 3 in E major; and Partita No. 2 in D minor, which includes the glorious Chaconne. This particular weekend is well timed for the E major Partita: the San Diego Symphony performs Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Upbeat!, which pays homage to the partita’s Preludio. Bach himself brilliantly captured said Preludio (though in the key of D major) in his Cantata No. 29. He certainly knew how best to make use of his expertise. 

As did Mr. Shaham. The extent of Bach’s proficiency on the violin was never clearly chronicled, but Shaham’s deftness and skill were very much in evidence as he powered his way through these fiendishly difficult works, in which there is absolutely nowhere to hide: the player is responsible for all the voices, from melodic to inner to bass line. Shaham demonstrated that a single instrument with but four strings and a bow is capable of replicating an entire string quartet’s voicing and sonorities. 

One of the keys to producing these qualities in unaccompanied Bach is in fact the use of the bow - which in its modern incarnation does not entirely resemble the arched bow of Bach’s time - to produce sound, not only drawing it from individual strings but from two, three or all four simultaneously. In this sense “unaccompanied” more accurately means, “accompanying oneself.” Shaham proved this feat eminently achievable and, in his skilled hands, demonstrated that the solo violin needs no accompanying aid from a piano, or even an orchestra. 

His choice of Partita No. 3 as an opener was perfect. He engaged the audience’s attention immediately by establishing intense eye contact while simultaneously executing the dazzling string crossings and relentless barrage of never-ending sixteenth notes. Shaham performed these with dexterity and nimbleness at breakneck speed without sacrificing the beauty or quality of the tone. 

Shaham’s interpretations of these unaccompanied works have been termed “original.” Certainly his somewhat idiosyncratic interpretations were in evidence in the dance movements of both partitas, where the violinist cleverly incorporated a generous sprinkling of carefully calculated ornamentation that gave the impression of being improvised. Added to the highly stylized 17th century phrasing, the embellishments contributed a great deal of stylistic pizazz to the overall dancelike character of those pieces. 

In the three unaccompanied sonatas, each Adagio and fugue becomes progressively more difficult, and of these the opening Adagio of Sonata No. 3 is the longest, most arduous and most problematic. The intricacies and juxtapositions of the fingerings and the compound undulating of the chords require a monumental command of both bow and left hand. Shaham the artist was in his element, if a bit rushed, in this Adagio, and in the segue fugue movement, which also is of extended length. He articulated the cascades of notes and chords with great clarity. He expertly executed the multiple voices, bringing out melody and counter melody distinctly, and using his superb bow arm to cluster together the multiple voices of the fiendishly difficult chord structure: a nigh impossible feat with a modern bow. 

Perhaps the true mettle of any violinist is being able to master and perform the Chaconne. As effective as the E major Preludio is as an opener, the Chaconne is equally winning as an ending. Even more challenging is to perform the four dance movements preceding it without losing the momentum required to sustain the technical demands of the final movement, which can easily stand on its own, not to mention the profound emotion contained within its expressive melody and harmonic changes.

The violinist’s energy never flagged during the entire work. The dance movements meshed into each other yet remained distinctly individual, leading up to the ultimate long-awaited Chaconne. Performed with conviction, if unusually fast, Shaham made the piece his own, successfully tackling its technical challenges. 

Shaham’s courage in assembling these three stupendous works for one program paid off generously, earning the delight and admiration of a captivated audience.

Photos used by permission of Luke Ratray

Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Richard Goode “Sings” - On the Piano

By Erica Miner

Known for the depth of expression, expansiveness and introspection in his playing, pianist Richard Goode has won the admiration of discriminating classical music aficionados worldwide. On Feb. 27 he will make his San Diego Symphony debut in the lesser known but powerfully expressive Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25. In this interview via phone from his home in New York, Goode reveals details about his musical journey, his belief in the importance of musical education, and his views on vocality in Mozart.

EM: After many decades of being a huge devotee of your work, I’m absolutely delighted to interview you. Did you grow up in a musical family? How did you come to play piano?

RG: We didn’t hear much classical music in my house. My father sort of wanted me to become a violinist, in fact, but he started me on the piano. I never got past it.

EM: When did you decide music was “it” for you?

RG: I didn’t have any clear feelings about what I wanted to do until age eight or nine. My first teacher was Elvira Szigeti, who was married to the uncle of (violinist) Joseph Szigeti, and lived five blocks from us in the Bronx. She was a very encouraging teacher. She didn’t play the piano anymore herself, she had arthritis, but was a contemporary of Bartòk at the Budapest Academy, and was a very inspiring person. Unfortunately she retired three years after I started studying with her but she gave me a start.

EM: You had a number of very prominent teachers after that. Was any one of those more influential than the others?

RG: My first serious teacher was Claude Frank. He was a Schnabel student and a wonderful pianist. I had lessons with him for a couple of years. That was my first acquaintance with wonderful piano playing because my first teacher didn’t play the piano at all. After that I studied with Nadia Reisenberg, who was a wonderful teacher, but my main musical influence was (Rudolf) Serkin. I first heard him when I was eleven or twelve. He was the one who had recommended Claude Frank as a teacher, and he was my musical idol for all those years. I went to Marlboro for the first time when I was fourteen. Then I went to Curtis and studied with him privately along with Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who was also a great influence.

EM: You were the first American-born pianist to record the complete Beethoven piano Sonatas. Leonard Bernstein also encouraged your solo and concerto playing. Do you feel the most passion for sonatas, or for chamber music, or concertos? How do you feel about performing in all these aspects? Do you have a different kind of love for each one, or more of a love for one than the other? Or is that a fair question?

RG: It’s a good question. My main feeling, the ground feeling that I have, is that all music is one. Music is music. You’re striving for the same kinds of things in playing it. In the singing line, in listening to harmony and making rhythm clear and alive, following the narrative progress of the piece, no matter whether you’re playing a Beethoven sonata or Mozart concerto or Schubert song or Fauré trio. Perhaps at this point what most satisfies me is playing solo recitals, because I can make all the decisions myself and argue with myself and nobody else. [Laughs] Perhaps also playing lieder accompaniments. Playing songs. I love the time scale of songs, the fact that the drama happens in such a short time. Every moment counts. Every note counts. In some way I feel closer to wanting to become a singer than anything else, to be a singer on the piano. And this vicariously satisfies my love of singing. I was singing as a child, imitating what I heard on the radio. That’s probably why my father had the idea of me becoming a musician.

EM: I’m glad to hear you say that. One of the things I admire most about your playing is how it sings on the instrument. Why did you choose this particular concerto?

RG: Many reasons. It was the very first Mozart concerto I played in public, and it’s a favorite of mine, which goes along with the harmonic wonders that happen in it. It has such a great scope and breadth, a bit like the Jupiter Symphony perhaps, but the lyrical moments and thematic things that happen are that much more wonderful because they’re against this wonderful C-major background. And absolutely among the greatest moments that I know in Mozart and maybe in music. What happens in the middle of the last movement - it suddenly breaks into the dance like motion, and you have this marvelous melody that’s traded between the piano and the winds, one of the great moments, I think. And the slow movement - one of Mozart’s most formally perfect and satisfying, the way it comes in between these two massive movements and makes a kind of serene counterpoint to everything else in the concerto. Also the fact that it was not very well known. I believe after its first performance by Mozart nobody performed it for something like 150 years.

EM: Oh my goodness.

RG: It didn’t have the initial charm and spontaneous lyricism of some of the other concerti, although it has wonderful themes. But there is something remarkable, and I think the first movement may be one of the grandest he ever wrote. It was a great favorite of Beethoven, who was stealing from it. [Laughs] For me it’s fascinating. At a certain point at the beginning of the development of the slow movement there’s this [Sings] rhythm that he uses throughout, sort of like the Marseillaise. Then the piano changes key going into E minor, exactly what Beethoven does at the same point in a slightly different way in the fourth concerto. It’s really an obvious reference to the great forebear. Absolutely wonderful how Beethoven makes the reference and also makes his own variation just at that point.

EM: Interesting that you spoke of “most perfect” in the context of Mozart, who was so perfect in every way. Also that you mentioned drama and dramatic, considering it was written about the same time as he was writing Don Giovanni. Would it be too much of a stretch to say there’s an operatic aspect to this concerto?

RG: Not at all. Mozart’s writing, first of all, is almost always vocal, and of course innately dramatic. The second movement has passages that are plainly operatic in inspiration. The middle of the movement has these huge leaps in the piano part against the rising harmonic orchestra sequence. I’m fairly certain that those start with the idea of the voice going from the deep register to the high register. I think in this particular case they’re meant to start that way and then the ornamental way in which singer might ornament these stretches. So the operatic element definitely is there. But you can see it in practically everything of Mozart. In a certain period, when Mozart wrote most of his famous concerti, 1784 or so, you see it in melodies that sound like arias from Figaro. That was also the period when he started writing elaborate parts for woodwinds, which of course are the singers of the orchestra. In these concerti you have the chamber music trading of motives and vocal parts between piano and winds, which are constant from around that period. So this is a whole enrichment of the idea of the concerto that never happened before. It only happened in Mozart from around that period.

EM: I admit this concerto is my least familiar Mozart, so it’s going to be fantastic to listen to it in that context. I’ve seen videos of your teaching as well. How important is that outreach for you?

RG: I love teaching. It’s very important to me, a part of furthering my musical understanding. Having musical dialogs with people, studying music through listening to it, getting new ideas about it and hearing how differently people play is fascinating to me. I’ve found master classes extremely stimulating - the challenge of hearing somebody give a performance, how to approach the possibilities of the person and that music at that time. What can one say that’s helpful, enlightening, and interesting. There are so many avenues of approach to teaching. Each person presents you with a set of different possibilities

EM: You have played contemporary music but I think most people consider you a classicist. Do you enjoy playing contemporary works?

RG: When I play, my heart is in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some forays into the 20th but tonality has a very strong hold on me. Despite some exceptions, for example the music of  George Perle, which I’ve recorded, and a few others, almost everything I feel strongly drawn to is in the tonal idiom. I do listen to contemporary music, but as far as being an advocate for young composers I have been a total loss. I’m sorry about it, but on the other hand I also believe you should play the music you can deeply feel until you can do justice to it.

EM: I totally agree, and you are so brilliant at it, so why not. Just one more thing. I’m curious about your “signature” hat.

RG: Actually it’s very recent. It was a Panama that I took a liking to that I bought for €15 in Walesa. I think I had one photo shoot with that hat. I had no idea it became a signature. It’s not one that I had before and I’m not sure I’ll have it again. But as signatures go it’s quite nice.

EM: It is indeed. Thank you so very much for spending this time with me.

RG: Very nice to talk to you, Erica.

EM: My pleasure.

Photos used by permission of Sasha Gusov

Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]