Early Saturday evening, while the New York Film Festival was playing next door at Alice Tully, I went to Paul Hall to hear a recital by Lara Lev, a member of the Juilliard pre-college faculty. I had previously heard Ms. Lev in recital in 2013 at this same venue and had been extremely impressed by her command of her chosen instrument. At both that earlier recital and the one given Saturday evening, it was apparent that the violinist had deliberately chosen a program that presented great technical difficulties for even the most accomplished musicians. The present one-hour performance accordingly featured an eclectic selection of works by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, J.S. Bach, and George Rochberg.
The program opened with music from the Baroque era - Biber's Passacaglia in G minor, known as the "Guardian Angel," for solo violin (c. 1645). This piece concludes the Rosary Sonatas (as the title page was missing from Biber's autograph, these works have also come to be known as the Mystery Sonatas), a series of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo that together with the Passacaglia are considered the composer's masterpiece. Though not so well known today as his contemporaries Bach and Vivaldi, Biber was one of the great composers of the Baroque era as well as a virtuoso violinist. I've heard a number of his works performed on period instruments at Juilliard415 recitals and have been astonished at how modern his music sounds. The Passacaglia is one of his most innovative works. Employing standard violin tuning rather than the scodatura used in the sonatas themselves, Biber created here one of the milestones of the violin repertoire. As a 2005 dissertation by Yu-Chi Wang states:
"Biber used high positions and polyphonic writing to explore idiomatic and virtuosic writing for violin. His work created new demands on the violinists’ technique and were more difficult than either Corelli’s compositions or Teleman’s twelve Fantasias, which were written decades after the Passacaglia. The use of chords in Passacaglia creates resonant acoustics, and the use of running notes reveals a brilliant violinistic virtuosity. Biber’s counterpoint played on a single violin was also a breakthrough in violin technique. Davitt Moroney asserts that Biber’s Passacaglia was the most important precursor of J. S. Bach’s six unaccompaneid violin works. The Passacaglia was constructed of twelve sections with an introduction and a coda. Each section has a different length. The excitement of this piece arises from its construction out of sections which alternately feature chords and arpeggios, set in an increasingly intense rhythmic texture."
Moving from the Baroque to the twentieth century, Ms. Lev next performed the Tempo di ciaccona, the first movement of Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117 (1944). Ms. Lev had previously performed the sonata in its entirety at her 2013 recital, and I was sorry on this occasion not to have heard the full work once again. Inspired of course by Bach's great Ciaccona (itself performed later at this recital), the movement is not technically a chaconne though there are obvious stylistyic similarities to the Baroque form. It contains three separate themes and relies heavily, as do the majority of Bartók's compositions, on Hungarian folk music. The entire work was written while Bartók was convalescing from leukemia in North Carolina at roughly the same time he was composing the Piano Concerto No. 3. It was the piano that was Bartók's instrument of choice - his skills as a performer were at the virtuoso level - and I doubt very much that he would ever have composed a piece for solo violin if he had not been commissioned to so by Yehudi Menuhin. Although the sonata is an important and striking work, it never in my opinion quite rises to the heights attained by Bartók's greatest piano compositions. Still, it must be borne in mind that at thet time he wrote the sonata, the composer was desperately ill and had only roughly another year to live.
It was also in 1944, the same year that Bartók wrote his sonata, that Stravinsky composed his Elegie, the only work he ever created for solo viola. As the program for this recital noted, the work was "composed in memory of Alphonse Onnou, violinist and founder of the Pro-Arte String Quartet in Brussels 1912." The best short description of this composition is probably that furnished by Eric Walter White, author of Stravinsky, The Composer and His Works (2nd ed., 1979):
"This Elegy for unaccompanied viola (which may also be played a fifth higher by an unaccompanied violin) is a two-part invention in ternary form....The first section is a kind of chant played above a simple flowing accompaniment. The middle section is skillfully written to give the impression of a fugue....At the climax the fugal subject is answered by its inversion at a distance of a single bar. (A single bar) forms a bridge leading to the recapitulation of the first section with an altered cadence in the last four bars. The viola (or violin) plays con sordino (with mute) throughout."
Following the Stravinsky, Ms. Lev returned to the Baroque era to perform what any number of musicians have agreed is the greatest work written for solo violin, Bach's Ciaccona, the fifth and final movement of his Partita in D minor, BWV 1004 (1717-1720). I had heard last month at a Jupiter Players recital this same movement in Brahms's famous transcription for piano but had not enjoyed it nearly so much as in its original form for violin. Still, its worth quoting Brahms's thoughts on the Ciaccona if only to give an indication of the impact it has had on musicians since its rediscovery in the early nineteenth century (it was first published in 1802).
"On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."
The recital ended with a selections from the 1970 Caprice Variations for Unaccompanied Violin by George Rochberg, a composer with whose work I had previously been unfamilar. The full piece is made up of fifty-one variations of which eleven quote from the works of other composers (i.e., Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler and Webern). Those performed at this recital consisted of eleven selections from both the quoting and non-quoting variations. In borrowing from the works of earlier composers, Rochberg joined a select group of twentieth century composers, the most notable of whom was Alfred Schnittke who set forth the rationale for this usage in his 1971 essay "Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music." I'd refer those seeking an in-depth analysis of the Variations as a whole to an exhaustive 2014 dissertation written by Hojin Kim at Florida State University that is currently available online. For me, what was most interesting was that the piece was written in the latter part of Rochberg's career following the tragic death of his son Paul in 1964. It was then that he rejected the serialist techniques that had formed the basis of his earlier music. Rochberg apparently felt that serialism was too abstract a system to offer him any consolation in his time of sorrow and so turned to tonalism, the music that had traditionally offered a more profound link to the emotions. He wrote:
"After Paul died, that absolutely made it necessary for me to wash my hands of the whole thing [serialism]... Music is the sound of the human heart, shaped and guided by the mind. It is the sounding of the human consciousness in all of its possible states of being."
Attending this recital was a rewarding experience both for the well thought out programming and for the high level of musicianship. It greatly enlarged my knowledge of the solo violin repertoire.