Sebastian Bohren & José Gallardo
Stravinsky / Beethoven / Bach / Strauss
Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2018-09-13
In this year’s Lucerne Festival, I have attended the “Debut Series” recitals by Paul Huang & Orion Weiss (2018-09-04), by Dmitry Masleev (2018-09-04), and by the Rolston Quartet (2018-09-11). This is the last of the “Debut Series” recitals that I attended: a duo recital with the Swiss violinist Sebastian Bohren (*1987, see also Wikipedia) and the Argentinean pianist José Gallardo (*1970, see also Wikipedia).
My first encounter with Sebastian Bohren goes back to 2015-10-13, when he gave a duo recital with the pianist Benjamin Engeli (*1978), at the ETH in Zurich. On top of that, a mere four days preceding this recital, on 2018-09-09, I have heard him as a member of the Stradivari Quartet, in a concert at St.Peter Church in Zurich. I’ll refrain from repeating the introduction to this artist: I have written about him and his instrument, the 1761 violin “Ex-Wannamaker Hart” by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786), in the reports on these earlier recitals.
Also José Gallardo is an artist whom I have witnessed before, in various concerts / recitals in Budapest, 2017 and 2018, as part of the Festival Academy Budapest. From these recitals, I knew that he is an excellent pianist chamber musician—the ideal partner for the challenging program that Sebastian Bohren selected, see below. Here, José Gallardo was playing on a Steinway D-274, with fully open lid.
- Beethoven: 12 Variations on Mozart’s Aria “Se vuol ballare“, WoO 40
- Stravinsky: Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée“
- Bach: Ciaccona, from the Partita No.2 in D minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004
- Strauss: Sonata for Violin and Piano in E♭ major, op.18
The original program had the sequence of the first two pieces inverted. The reordering definitely made sense to me. It does start with a classical piece, places the challenging Divertimento by Stravinsky in second position. Having that followed by Bach may sound strange; however, Stravinsky’s piece is from the neo-classical period, and Bach’s well-known Chaconne, albeit using baroque “language”, is absolute music and fits into a large variety of contexts. Ending the recital with the Strauss sonata definitely was a good idea, considering the power-draining virtuosity of that music.
As in all recitals at the Lukaskirche in Lucerne this year, I was sitting in the left-side lateral block of the nave, next to the corridor, with excellent view and room for my legs (row 11 instead of row 9 this time), the acoustics are the same (excellent) on pretty much all seats in this venue. One just needs to be there 30 minutes prior to the concert in order to catch a seat at the corridor (the seats are not numbered, just sold by row number and block). As anticipated for a local artist, the venue was almost sold out, the audience substantially bigger than in the concert with the Canadian string quartet two days earlier.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his 12 Variations for piano and violin, WoO 40, around 1792 – 1793. Beethoven started composing these variations in Bonn, the completion and publishing only happened after his move to Vienna (late in 1792). He dedicated the piece to his friend and former pupil in Bonn, Eleonore von Breuning (1771 – 1841). The theme for the variations is from the aria “Se vuol ballare, signor contino“ from the Opera “Le Nozze di Figaro“ (The Marriage of Figaro), K.492, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791).
The theme is a mere 20 bars, the last 8 of these are repeated; the annotations for the variations are as follows:
- Theme, Allegretto (pizzicato)
- Var.I: p, sempre dolce (arco)
- Var.II: f, sempre staccato
- Var.III, sempre piano e legato
- Var.IV: ff
- Var.V: p,
- Var.VI: p, espressivo, F minor
- Var.VII: p / espressivo / sempre sostenuto, F minor
- Var.VIII: p, sempre dolce
- Var.IX: f (piano alone)
- Var.X: p, sempre dolce
- Var.XI: p / f / sf
- Var.XII: f
All variations are in 3/4 time, and all are in F major, with the two exceptions (VI, VII) indicated above.
The Steinway’s open lid rang an alarm bell with me: after all, these variations were written for a fortepiano of the late 18th century, such as those manufactured by Anton Walter (1752 – 1826), if not even smaller / older than that. These instruments had a much smaller volume (and a tone that was much, much richer in sound). This did not mean the end of the world, though: I have witnessed pianists who are able to adjust their playing (touch, articulation, volume), such that a single string instrument can still be heard.
Also, Sebastian Bohren was playing with a modern Tourte-type bow. Compared to classical bows, this permits using “more bow”, hence producing more volume. Also, Bohren’s violin was equipped with modern, metal-clad strings, which again produce a bigger tone than gut strings at the time of the composition. So:
The theme for these variations is special insofar, as the violin plays the theme pizzicato, an octave above the piano, which adds scarce harmonic support. For one, this soft start forced everybody to focus on the performance. At the same time, it demonstrated how well Sebastian Bohren’s Guadagnini projected—even just pizzicato. José Gallardo of course kept the accompaniment discreet, so there was no balance issue at all.
For the first three variations, the piano took the lead, the violin being either accompaniment, or at least secondary voice. This may explain the shift in the balance: Beethoven primarily being, thinking and composing as a pianist, his piano parts often dominate in chamber music works.
That said: I did find the piano too dominant, too loud in variations I — III. With that limitation, I certainly did enjoy José Gallardo’s attentive playing, his light, careful articulation, his ability to make the melody line sing. I equally liked Sebastian Bohren’s violin part: he did not try “boosting” the violin’s accompanying role, let alone trying to compete with the concert grand. Quite to the contrary: in variation I he even played with virtually flat, vibrato-less tone.
This was the first one where I really wished for a fortepiano, as Bohren’s staccato was nearly drowning in the sound of the piano with its running semiquavers between the dialog of the two outer voices.
This was a little less critical in that respect, as it is all piano e legato. Still, a period instrument would have made the performance even lighter, more transparent.
Excellent, virtuosic piano playing. Sadly it again tilted the balance with the big ff sound. Sure, both instruments are annotated ff. However, what can a violin do against the sound of a concert grand with open lid? Only in the repeat bars, the violin is given a chance to “talk to the piano on an equal basis”.
I liked the light playing on the violin. And I wished I could hear more of it! The humorous, joking (laughing) staccato chains barely made it through the piano part. But of course, I did enjoy the plasticity, the careful articulation in José Gallardo’s playing: by itself, it is a joy to listen to!
In the two minore (F minor) variations, for the first time, the violin stood in the foreground: in variation VI, the piano merely, discreetly fills the harmonies with basso continuo-like accompaniment. And I enjoyed Bohren’s unpretentious tone: he used vibrato merely to highlight specific notes. Beethoven marked espressivo—but even that did not require vibrato: amazing!
Same in the melancholic variation VII: here, the melody is in the pianist’s right hand, but very lightly played, the violin helps the pianist’s left hand in filling the harmonies with long, resting notes: no vibrato sauce at all, just the raw, unpretentious sound of the single- and double-stop notes (vibrato merely for the two fp accents): this really brought forward the sad, longing tone in these bars. And it showed the real qualities of the Guadagnini. An emotional highlight in these variations!
Was it that my ears had adapted to the situation, or is that variation better suited for this constellation? There was a mis-balance in the volume, still. Nevertheless, it was easy to follow the dialog between the violin and the piano’s nice, expressively singing descant voice. Even though Sebastian Bohren didn’t seem to make any efforts to match the piano’s volume, but kept his voice simple.
José Gallardo is a highly virtuosic pianist. Beethoven seemed to have written this piano-only variation right into Gallardo’s hands! All the fast semiquaver triplets are under slurs, i.e., to be played legato. Too bad that on the Steinway this made them sound blurred. A fortepiano would have maintained clear articulation even in all the fast legato notes. On a modern piano, this would require a slower tempo, or less legato playing.
Here’s another variation where the artists found a good balance, with an expressive dolce dialog between the violin and the piano’s descant.
I liked this joking, Scherzo-like variation with the (almost) harsh accents in the violin. It demonstrated that the Guadagnini can produce a fair amount of volume, matching that of the piano
Variations XII, Coda
The final variation features “grippy” double stop playing, following the chords in pianist’s right hand, above the running semiquavers in the left hand. It’s a typical “grand finale” for that time! However, Beethoven added some surprises with the Coda: after lightly echoing the last variation, followed by a long general rest, the atmosphere suddenly changed into a dark, somber one, with warm, expressive playing on the G-string. The dark mood didn’t last long, though. The music brightened up again for a return of (parts of) the theme, then some reminiscences of the Scherzo variation, and—last surprise—two dark bass chords on the piano.
As a composition, I would call Beethoven’s WoO 40 an early masterpiece—very entertaining and pure delight to listen to!
Conclusion — Piano
Overall: using a fortepiano for these variations would have been far, far better. Though, I can see that setting up such an instrument for this performance would have added substantial effort (costs, time). Plus, a pianist who is used to modern concert grands can’t just switch to a fortepiano, as these require completely different playing technique (so, this program would have required two keyboard artists). However, closing, or at least half-closing the lid would have at least improved the balance.
Technically, and considering the piano alone, José Gallardo (in general) played at the level that I expected from earlier encounters (see above): virtuosic, agile, precise, clear, with excellent articulation and phrasing.
Conclusion — Violin
These variations may not be the best choice to demonstrate one’s abilities on the violin. Nevertheless, they are an ideal way to start a recital, an excellent choice! And I liked Sebastian Bohren’s unpretentious playing. It was perfectly adequate for this music: I hope that eventually he will find a fortepianist as partner for a more historically informed performance in music of that period. Of course, with this, I don’t mean to devalue José Gallardo’s excellent piano playing by any means!
Stravinsky: Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée“
1928, Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) wrote his ballet “Le Baiser de la Fée” (The Fairy’s Kiss). In this composition, Stravinsky “digested” melodies by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), in memory of the 35th anniversary of the composer’s death. Four years later, 1932, he selected four movements for a suite, which he named “Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée“. 1934, Stravinsky adapted that suite for piano and violin, with and for the violinist Samuel Dushkin (1891 – 1976). That version premiered with the composer at the piano. It features four movements:
- Sinfonia: Andante — Allegro sostenuto — Andante — Vivace — (attacca)
- Danses Suisses: Tempo giusto
- Scherzo (Au Moulin): Allegretto grazioso — Doppio movimento — Tempo I
- Pas de deux:
- Adagio — Poco più mosso —
- Variation: Allegretto grazioso —
- Coda: Presto
With this music, the atmosphere obviously changed dramatically!
The Andante beginning sounded harmless, almost simple: Sebastian Bohren (deliberately) played with an airy, “bleak” tone. And the scarce harmonies in the piano underlined this character. The violin is very exposed in this beginning, the intonation tricky hardly correctable (double-stop playing, high positions, often in parallel to a voice on the piano): well done!
This changes in bar 13, where the violin suddenly showed volume on the G-string, grip, and a full & characterful tone, above with a flow of “chatty” demisemiquavers on the piano, then the two artists change roles, the violin taking over the fast notes, the melody now in the descant of the piano. It was interesting to see what difference it makes if the composer wrote with the modern piano in mind: any concern about balance had instantly vanished, be it in polyphonic dialogs, or even with busy, rapid piano accompaniment, and across playing styles / techniques on the violin.
Even just this introductory part is multi-faceted, covers a broad range of colors and expressions, culminating in a veritable, impressive lightning storm!
Allegro sostenuto — Andante —
… and suddenly we heard a somewhat heavy, clumsy peasant dance, technically challenging (and power-draining!) for both instruments. The rhythm lightened up—a sequence of dance rhythms, ending in a tango-like sequence: vivid, hefty, occasionally even violent, always virtuosic and a challenge in intonation (at this speed, jumping around in vast intervals, etc.): impressive performance!
The Andante is just a short transition to the last part:
A sparkling, lively ending (and transition to the “Swiss Dances”): again very hefty, percussive on the piano, and very demanding on the violin! This music doesn’t ask vor clinically clean, perfect performance: expression, rhythm and drive is what is needed here—and what the artists delivered.
II. Danses Suisses
I don’t know what is “Swiss” about these dances, but it’s very entertaining music: fun to play and to listen to, jauntily dancing, full of drive, again very colorful, multi-faceted (and OK, there are some folk songs chiming in from time to time, Ranz des Vaches, even)—pure joy for artists and audience! There are also segments that remind of music from Pétrouchka: Stravinsky at his best. If that wasn’t fun, I don’t know what is! Still, it has its challenges, particularly on the violin, with its rapid multiple-stop passages: mastered well here, congrats!
III. Scherzo (Au Moulin)
A light, joking Scherzo, indeed! My only reservation here is that the musical flow was sometimes hard to follow, which made this a little less compelling than the previous movements, despite Bohren’s good intonation and technically excellent, virtuosic performance. Overall, I did not always feel 100% at ease with the tempo and the rubato.
IV. Pas de deux: Adagio — Variation — Coda
Adagio — Poco più moso
We had dance and ballet in the previous movements. This one added theater: the Adagio is a recitativo accompagnato, with expressive singing on the violin. This builds up to a lively dispute between multiple voices, followed by a melodious aria—until an arioso / recitativo accompagnato leads into the next part:
Variation: Allegretto grazioso — Coda: Presto
After the “vocal solo”: a veritable Variété piece! It comes with the attitude of salon music, but at the same time is sparkling, virtuosic, a little masterpiece!
The Coda is just as entertaining: jazzy, sparkling, enthralling, true fun, for sure, with the melody, the motifs jumping between violin and piano: one could feel how José Gallardo livened up in this style! There were some occasional, momentary intonation issues—but who cared, with so much fun?!
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Bach: Ciaccona, from the Partita No.2 in D minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004
Because of its technical challenges, the Ciaccona (Chaconne) is not the most frequently played movement from the “Sei Solo” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), the six Sonatas and Partitas (3 each), BWV 1001 – 1006. However, it still is the most famous part, and it also has undergone numerous adaptations and arrangements by other composers. The Ciaccona is the last movement of the Partita in D minor for Violin solo, BWV 1004. It follows the four movements (Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Gigue) that form part of the majority of baroque suites:
As the piece is so well-known, I won’t add more of a description here.
Maybe the start was a tad fast, after all the excitement of the Stravinsky. At least, I could have imagined calmed beginnings, as there was a slight unrest in the exposition, the theme (24 bars). Sebastian Bohren’s articulation focused on the cantabile aspect: portato, not too light and dry. In the first variation, in the linear quavers and semiquavers, the artist had found “his” proper pace, the tempo he obviously felt comfortable with. There were rare (slight) intonation issues in the fast passages, but the extensive arpeggiando segment was very clean, fluent, the transitions smooth and natural.
Also in the wonderfully serene, calm, central D major section, Bohren chose a mellow portato, though not overly broad, never heavy. He was highlighting the beautiful and touching singing in this music. The only transition that (to me) did not feel 100% natural and smooth was the one to the arpeggio at the end of the D major section.
One little quibble: in the semiquaver chains in the final D minor section, Bohren seemed to lose some momentum / tempo, and towards the end, I think that one could start seeing signs of fatigue from the efforts of the three pieces (also the intonation started degrading in the last bars). And the program was far from over!
“Beauty of tone” is not a primary attribute with Stravinsky’s Divertimento. I’m glad Sebastian Bohren chose to play the Chaconne, so we also got to enjoy the beautiful, balanced / equilibrated sonority of his Guadagnini, its smooth response. In a way, this was needed here, be it only to get the full spectrum of Bohren’s playing. Of course, even though it’s “just” one movement, this alone is an immense challenge. It does not require exotic techniques, but rather, the challenge is in maintaining the flow, “keeping the piece together”, forming the big, dramatic arch in the first D minor part, then again for the D major, and the final D minor section.
Considering the Stravinsky that preceded (and the Strauss sonata yet to follow!), Sebastian Bohren’s performance in the Chaconne was excellent.
I have posted descriptive remarks on the Sonata for violin and piano in E♭ major, op.18, by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) in an earlier post, where I compared a few recordings. I’m limiting my description to the list of the movements:
- Allegro ma non troppo (4/4)
- Improvisation: Andante cantabile (4/4)
- Finale: Andante (6/8) — Allegro (3/4)
Richard Strauss composed the sonata in 1888. Sebastian Bohren performed this same Sonata also in the recital at the ETH, on 2015-10-13. This was not with the same pianist, of course.
At the time of the composition, concert grands had almost the size, shape and volume of modern instruments (such as the Steinway D-274 in this concert), so I did not anticipate balance issues here. Quite to the contrary: Strauss’ demanding, extremely virtuosic piano score requires a recent concert grand for the full effect.
I. Allegro ma non troppo
I must confess: the utterly virtuosic, brilliant piano part distracts from the violin! Luckily, I had the score with me. This helped me in not losing track of the violin part. That’s just the “naked music”: a brilliant piece, for sure, with the powerful piano fanfare in the main theme! However, this is not the place to comment on the composition:
In this first movement, the performance wasn’t quite as brilliant as the piece: the signs of fatigue that already showed up towards the end of the Chaconne had become stronger by now. Already at the onset, it had been clear that this program would be challenging, strenuous, especially in a concert without intermission, nor any major breaks for the violinist. Bowing and fingering, also coordination / timing worked fairly flawlessly, there was beautiful singing in the many violin cantilenas. However, intonation errors became more frequent.
Even José Gallardo, who was clear and powerful in the fanfares of the theme, oddly seemed to lose focus and poignancy in the softer & legato segments. Overall, this ended up as the weakest movement of the performance, if not the concert. After the event, I learned that José Gallardo was still in recovery from medical issues, which also caused severe cuts in rehearsal time. And a sonata such as this one will inevitably reveal physical weaknesses. We wish José Gallardo a good and complete recovery!
II. Improvisation: Andante cantabile
It was good to have an Andante cantabile at this point, to allow the artists to recover. It’s not to say that the movement is easy. But at least, it is far less strenuous, overall. I found that the artists did a very good job at shaping the overall architecture, the big arches, from the calm, serene beginning, through the more passionate, intense emotions in the piano part. the artists carried this through the ethereal, sometimes dreamy second part with its almost erratically sparkling piano interjections and the melancholic cantilenas. Atmospheric, and much more successful than the first movement!
III. Finale: Andante — Allegro
The Andante introduction on the piano was excellent: retained, mysterious, full of tension and expectations! then, of course, the Allegro / energico segment breaks in, brilliant and very virtuosic: I was glad to see that the artists were able to mobilize the necessary forces, the concentration, for a coherent performance, full of life! I particularly liked the transitions, the changes in atmosphere between the highly virtuosic and the serene segments. José Gallardo was excellent especially at the emotional, dramatic moments—let alone the stunning octave cascades. Also Sebastian Bohren ran up to excellent form towards the end: not everything may have been 100% perfect. However, the dramatic pull, the excitement towards the conclusion were truly enthralling!
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Overall, this was an excellent debut recital: congratulations! Sure, the artists may have laid the bar a little too high with that program: among the 6 debut recitals that I have heard in this venue so far, this could well have been the most strenuous, the most power-draining one (for the violinist, in particular). The artists deserve high respect for mastering this so well!