Marc Bouchkov, Claire Huangci
Mendelssohn: Violin Sonatas (Recording Session)

Recording @ Paul Sacher Saal, Don Bosco, Basel, 2021-03-31


2021-04-14 — Original posting



Table of Contents


General Remarks

This is another instance of a set of “workshop reports“, reports from visits to CD recording sessions: neither media reviews (the music is only just being recorded), nor concert reports. There is no audience, no complete performance, just a rehearsal and a series of takes with at most a full movement in a single “chunk”. See also my posting from 2021-03-18 for information on a related project by the Orpheum Foundation.

One should read this as a “teaser” for an ongoing CD recording project. The “end product” will only become available in about a year’s time.


Introduction

Venue, Date(s)Paul Sacher Saal, Don Bosco, Basel, 2021-03-31 / 2021-04-01
Series / TitleOrpheum Foundation: Young Artists’ CD Project 2021
Organizer(s)Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists
Goldmann Public Relations
Reviews on Related EventsConcerts organized by the Orpheum Foundation
Concerts in this same venue
Concerts and Recitals with Claire Huangci
Orpheum-Concert with Marc Bouchkov, 2016-08-31

The Context

The Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists is helping young, promising artists (4 – 8 per year) in launching a successful career, through concert opportunities, establishing contacts with concert agents and recording firms. In addition, the Foundation is directly organizing recording projects in cooperation with major labels. One such example is the Foundation’s “Next Generation Mozart Soloists” project that was officially launched a few weeks ago, featuring all of Mozart’s instrumental concertos.


This Year’s Orpheum CD Project

Besides the above, major project, since 2015, the Foundation has also initiated individual recordings, typically one per year. The recording sessions for the latest one of these, in cooperation with the label Berlin Classics, took place at the end of March 2021. The original plan called for a recording last year, but the pandemic made this impossible.

That upcoming CD (to be released in February 2022) features three instrumental compositions by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847):

The first two days of recording sessions for this CD covered the Double Concerto in D minor for Piano, Violin, and Strings, see my earlier post. For the double concerto, the two soloists (see below) performed with the accompaniment of the Kammerorchester Basel under the direction of Howard Griffiths (*1950). The two violin sonatas followed on the two subsequent days (days 3 & 4). This report is from the afternoon session of the third recording day.


The Artists in This Recording Session

I have encountered both artists in earlier concerts, see the links in the table above. For simplicity, I’m quoting some of the biographic information from my previous post:

Marc Bouchkov, Violin

The Russian-Belgian violinist Marc Bouchkov was born 1991 in Montpellier, into a family of musicians. Bouchkov started learning the violin at age 5, with his grandfather as teacher. 2001, Marc Bouchkov entered the conservatory in Lyon, and from 2007 on he studied at the Conservatoire national supérieur musique et danse in Paris, with Boris Garlitsky, who became his main teacher, mentor and promoter. The violinist has since started a successful career as soloist.

For this recording, Marc Bouchkov played a 1742 – 1744 violin by Carlo Bergonzi (Cremona, 1683 – 1747) and Michele Angelo Bergonzi (1721 – 1758).

Claire Huangci, Piano

The American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia) is among the artists that I have written about the most. For earlier reports about her concerts and recitals, as well as for details about her biography I therefore refer to the link in the above table. Concert encounters with her date back as far as February 2015, and she has never disappointed in all these encounters. Quite to the contrary: with every concert or recital, she continues to fascinate me with new facets of her musicality, her artistry.

In this recording (and, of course, the double concerto recording on the preceding days), Claire Huangci was playing a Yamaha CFX concert grand.


The Recording Venue, Setting

For some notes about the recording venue see an earlier review on a concert on 2020-10-08. For the purpose of this recording, all chairs had been removed from the nave of the former church. The chairs, the music stands, as well as all the equipment (microphones, cabling) for the orchestra in the preceding recording days remained in the venue for the chamber music sessions. This definitely created a workshop / studio atmosphere / environment.

The piano was set up facing the rear part of the auditorium, which ascends up to the organ balcony. Compared to the recordings with orchestra, the instrument had been turned, such that the tail now pointed slightly towards the audience. This not only avoided some of the direct reflection of the piano sound from the ascending benches, but also allowed Marc Bouchkov to perform to Claire Huangci’s right, facilitating eye contact between the artists.

I was the only person attending this recording session, so I took a seat in the center of row 4 in the ascending part of the auditorium. Even in the absence of the orchestra, and with the violinist now performing closer to my position than the pianist, the sound of the concert grand still dominated the soundscape—see below.


Recording Session

Let me start by repeating what I stated in my reports from the mid-March recording sessions in Zurich: this is not a concert critique. I’m merely describing my unbiased impressions. It is impossible for me to draw conclusions on how the recording is going to sound on the final CD, especially in terms of acoustic balance.

The morning session on that day had been devoted to recording setup, rehearsals and recording for the first two movements (Allegro vivace, Adagio) of the Violin Sonata No.3 in F major, MWV Q26 (1838). The afternoon session that I attended was mostly filled with takes for the last movement (Assai vivace), followed by some 20 minutes of takes for the introduction of the Violin Sonata No.2 in F minor, op.4, MWV Q12 (1823).

The Music

I’m only touching on the music here, and I’m mostly limiting my remarks to the segments that were rehearsed & recorded in my presence.

Violin Sonata No.3 in F major, MWV Q26

Mendelssohn composed his Violin Sonata in F major in 1838—the year in which he started working on his Violin Concerto in E minor, op.64 (MWV O14). The draft was complete in the same year, but kept the composer dissatisfied. He began reworking the sonata, but then left it aside, calling the sonata “wretched”. The work remained unpublished. Only in 1953, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916 – 1999) published the sonata, after reconstructing the first movement based on Mendelssohn’s incomplete revision. The sonata is now known as “No.3” (MWV Q26), even though this is not the composer’s numbering.

This sonata has three movements:

  1. Allegro vivace
  2. Adagio
  3. Assai vivace

Only the final movement of the sonata, Assai vivace, was performed and recorded in my presence. It is a brilliant firework of rapid figures and runs, both on the violin, as well as on the piano. It left me entirely puzzled: I failed to understand how the composer could possibly drop such a virtuosic, fascinating masterwork!

Violin Sonata No.2 in F minor, MWV Q12

The Violin Sonata in F minor is the only one that Mendelssohn published, as his op.4 (now in the catalog as MWV Q12), in 1823. That work has three movements:

  1. Adagio — Allegro moderato
  2. Poco adagio
  3. Allegro agitato

For the last part of the afternoon session that I attended, Marc Bouchkov spent some 20 minutes performing and recording the opening “Recitative“, the slow solo introduction (9 bars) to the first movement. The remainder of the sonata was recorded in the last session, on the following day.

The “No.2” again is not the composer’s numbering: Mendelssohn never published the early Violin Sonata “No.1” in F major (MWV Q7) from 1820 (one of his earliest compositions). The publication of that early sonata only happened in 1977.


The Session Experience

In the previous session for the Double Concerto in D minor, I focused on Claire Huangci’s playing, as she acoustically dominated the session. I have little to add here, on top of what I already stated—in fact, I’m running out of adjectives in trying to describe her playing without repeating myself. I hope she will understand that my remarks about her are somewhat sketchy in this post.

Sonata No.3 in F major, Assai vivace

Marc Bouchkov took a very systematic, careful approach to the recording of the final movement of Sonata No.3. The artists did a very slow pass with the metronome, then a second, complete pass at an intermediate tempo. Only then, they switched to the “top gear”, working their way through numerous passes (mostly partial) through the movement at the “proper” tempo—in fact, rather “as fast as possible” on the violin, as if the artists were challenging themselves. However, the music never felt pushed or rushed: not for the olympics, but always still playful, youthful.

While Marc Bouchkov seemed to re-grasp the piece systematically and thoroughly, Claire Huangci obviously wasn’t challenged at all: it must have felt like a warm-up exercise, through which she maintained patience and calm. With the “real” passes, though, I had the impression that the more challenging the music, the better she got (as did Marc Bouchkov, of course). Despite the virtuosic piano part, she remained totally relaxed, playfully and almost single-handedly shaking the chords and rapid figures out of her wrists & fingers. At the same time, she remained attentive, kept the necessary focus and full concentration. As she often does, she occasionally “commented” / “illustrated” her playing with the unused / free hand.

“Putting Things Together”

It was very interesting to watch the growing of the performance from rehearsals to a true interpretation, with the endless detours through corrections by the extremely attentive and meticulous sound engineer, Bernhard Hanke from Berlin Classics. The latter’s focus was on every detail in dynamics, articulation, tempo coherence, transitions, agogics in motifs.

Also Marc Bouchkov remained relaxed through the entire session, with constant focus on intonation, articulation & phrasing, and dynamic differentiation. And sure, his systematic approach towards reaching top performance paid off. However, he explicitly mentioned that he does not mean to reach perfection, stating that he finds perfect recordings utterly boring.

A little detail: already the upbeat beginning of the Assai vivace on the violin alone is really tricky: Marc Bouchkov went through several passes, making sure he was mentally entirely ready and “in pace” from the first tone, and until everything felt “right” up to and beyond the point when the piano entered the scene.


“Session Coda”—The Opening Recitative to op.4

Claire Huangci left, and in the last part of the session Marc Bouchkov created a series of takes / alternative versions of the introduction to the Sonata in F minor, op.4. That is: nine bars of a recitative (ad libit.), highly expressive, harmonically amazingly complex & full of surprises, with a strong narrative: an absolutely astounding piece for a 13-year old.

Recording / Studio Delights & Challenges

Already two days before, but especially here, I realized how much of a delight it must have been for the violinist not having to focus on volume and projection, but being able to indulge in producing colors, expression in every single note, every interval, and in refinements and details in dynamics, articulation, etc.

I had a little chat with the artist and was glad to learn that he found my presence (as sole audience member) helpful, if not necessary: the downside of studio recordings is in the lack of feedback from and interaction with the audience, especially with chamber music. He also confirmed the relief from not having to fill a large venue, which might mean losing detail and refinement.

And he praised the richness in colors and expression that his Bergonzi violin was able to produce. I can wholeheartedly confirm this from the 9-bar recitative. The colors were in parts stemming from the positioning, speed and pressure of the bow, but just as much they originated in Marc Bouchkov’s masterful intonation, such as the tension from deliberately narrow lead intervals, the width of sixths, thirds, etc.—possibilities that pianists can only dream of!

Many thanks to Marc Bouchkov for the chat and the extra insights!


Conclusions

As anticipated: the snippets that I hear from the sonata recording confirmed that we can expect a highly interesting, fascinating Mendelssohn CD from the Orpheum Foundation / Berlin Classics—something really to look forward to!


Day 1, afternoon session: Mendelssohn, Double Concerto in D minor for Piano, Violin, and Strings, MWV O4 (1823)


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