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Might J.S. Bach Have Approved of These Performances? (1/2)

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater, Adrienne Arsht Stage
12/11/2022 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Keyboard in G Major, BWV 1027, in D Major, BWV 1028, & in G Minor, BWV 1029 – Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard in E Major, BWV 1016, in C Minor, BWV 1017, & in G Major, BWV 1019
Cho‑Liang Lin (violin), Inbal Segev (cello), Juho Pohjonen (piano)

C.‑L. Lin, J. Pohjonen (© Tristan Cook)

In his written remarks in the program booklet, Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen, a stalwart of the Chamber Music Society (CMS) of Lincoln Center and their frequent collaborator, mentions that he came to know these sonatas for violin and piano only a few years ago, when he was recording them in the company of another musician connected to the CMS, French violinist Nicolas Dautricourt. It is perhaps a small wonder that these six sonatas, of which we heard only a half, are relatively infrequently performed. My explanation would be that both groups of sonatas, those written for viola da gamba and those for violin and a keyboard, if played at all are too frequently treated as a showcase for the string instrument. This is of course a great misfortune on the side of string players, as one should never treat the sonatas such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and others as a solo vehicle with the piano accompaniment.

And possibly such “soloists” see in Bach sonatas only a vehicle for showing their instrumental skills. As for piano parts, especially in the sonatas with violin, they are demanding and far form being considered an accompaniment, as perhaps may be the case with others’ baroque sonatas with relatively undemanding accompaniments.

In the same program booklet, CMS’ artistic director Wu Han mentions that these works, in her opinion, sound just fine played by any combination of instruments: old, new, old and new, newer and new etc. I can’t be in agreement with Ms. Wu for I was forever disenchanted with the instrumental balance: be it a live performance or a recording, between loud sounding violin or cello, historical or otherwise, and much softer sounding accompaniment of the harpsichord, though in the case of recordings the engineers could do something to correct the instrumental imbalance (they rarely do!). I was thus very pleased to have an opportunity to hear the violin and keyboard sonatas twice in one year being performed on the contemporary instruments. Well, one may ask: did it resolve the issue of the balance between the two protagonists? Yes and no. As I learned, that issue depends on the venue itself and on performers.

First of all, what ARE those sonatas, how are they constructed? They are almost exclusively based on so‑called trio sonata: the right hand of the keyboard (oft times the left hand, too!) and the string instrument are always in contrapuntal dialogue. Sometimes one instrument introduces a theme and the other instrument picks the tune, just as in a fugue. That would indicate that there should be certain instrumental evenness as when one line, be it the keyboard or string instrument, has decidedly an accompanying character.

I don’t think that I witnessed an ideal partnership between the pianist and cellist in the gamba sonatas. Ms. Segev seemed to me more interested in producing a rich, carrying tone, sometimes even covering the grand piano, that pays attention to the question who has the leading and accompanying line. There was, for my taste, too little variety of color in her sound and articulation. She is a very accomplished instrumentalist and, one would imagine, a chamber musician as well, but here I wish there was a bit more give and take between the cello and piano and variety in sound production.

The situation improved when the piano played with violin: Cho‑Liang Lin (known to everyone by his Americanized name Jimmy) may no longer have his former penetrating sound yet the sweet quality is still in evidence and the intonation throughout remained unaffected.

There are moments in all of those sonatas when violin takes over and acts as a singer with piano in indeed an auxiliary role. One such example is the beginning of Sonata in C Minor, where the melody reminded the listener of the famous aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from the Saint Matthew Passion, composed several years later. And then there was another example in the same sonata, when accompaniment of piano could easily be rewritten for lute and violin.

I was fortunate (and pleased!) to encounter two different performances of the violin sonatas played with the assistance of the real piano within the same year. The first time, just about six months ago, was their complete presentation at the 92nd Street Y when the piano part was offered up by Jeremy Denk and the violin part was played by the Polish violinist, Maria Wloszczowska.

Those two versions were quite different from each other: Denk was playing in an acoustically better room though with violinist who strangely subscribed to an idea of playing vibrato less on modern instrument with a modern piano (read: makes not sense). In Alice Tully Hall, we had at least two equally contemporary instruments and neither performers paid even the slightest attention to HIP demands (historically informed performances). Both pianists demonstrated in the command of their difficult piano parts equal mastery and impeccable control of the keyboard. Yet, with all my long‑time admiration for the Finnish pianist whom I heard on numerous occasions as soloist and as a superb chamber musician, I’d give a nod to the American.

Mr. Pohjonen’s approach to the piano is all‑business, unaffected, calm, which in itself can be admirable, but I felt that very same sense of physical uninvolvement transmitted a bit to the music. The incredible evenness of fingers became an end in itself, but the music, the line, phrasing didn’t pulsate.

By contrast, Mr. Denk’s playing was more vivid; he risked playing with the rhythms, being more sprightly in the dancing moments in the left hand and applying subtle though significant ornamentation, which is missing in the scores ( Bach rightly expected performers of these sonatas to know the style and the art of ornamentation!). Yet, to a listener not acquainted with those wonderful works, I would recommend Mr. Pohjonen’s recent set of the complete Bach Sonatas for Piano and Violin with the violinist Nicolas Dautricourt. And of course I am eternally grateful for having a chance NOT to hear the harpsichord accompanying the violin, especially if it’s done in the present‑day large venues, such as Alice Tully Hall.

That brings us to another event which I attended a week later at the same place, organized by the same Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Roman Markowicz



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