Sebastian Bohren
Bach / Ysaÿe / Paganini

Reformed Church, Windisch AG, 2019-04-21

4-star rating

2019-04-24 — Original posting


Sebastian Bohren, Windisch, 2019-04-21 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Sebastian Bohren, Windisch, 2019-04-21 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Introduction

The Venue

A familiar artist in a new location (new to me, that is). I have never ben to the reformed church in Windisch—I haven’t even been to Windisch at all (except for passing through in a train or by car, maybe). This is the location of the Roman legion camp of Vindonissa, and the church is in the immediate neighborhood of the former Franciscan monastery of Königsfelden (now a mental hospital / asylum).

The reformed church goes back to around 1300—it was erected in place of an early Christian bishop’s church. It’s a simple, Gothic hall church, featuring a rectangular nave with a flat, wooden ceiling, and a Gothic choir. The base of the tower is from 1400, the baroque upper part was added in 1642:

The Artist: Sebastian Bohren

I have heard the Swiss violinist Sebastian Bohren (*1987, see also Wikipedia) in concert several times (and I still owe the violinist two CD reviews). The concerts I attended were all discussed in this blog:

In these postings you’ll also find some additional information on the artist. Sebastian Bohren performs on the 1761 “Ex-Wannamaker Hart” violin by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786).

Program

This concert on Easter Sunday was organized by the violinist himself, as part of his concert series under the label Stretta Concerts Brugg. Sebastian Bohren selected a challenging program, consisting of two solo sonatas by Bach, followed by one of the solo sonatas by Ysaÿe, and closiong with two of the famous Capricci by Paganini:

The official concert announcement placed the Ysaÿe sonata between the two Bach sonatas. I found that the final rearrangement made sense.

Setting, etc.

There must have been around 150 people in the audience, all sitting in the front half of the nave (there is no balcony in this church). As I wanted to take photos, my wife and I took the right-most seats in row 9. These proved to be excellent from the point-of-view of acoustics and also offering good visibility (I was standing up for the photos). I liked the acoustics of the venue: the nave had the right amount of reverberation (still subtle, never irritating), while still keeping Sebastian Bohren’s spoken comments clearly understandable.

All photos (excepting the facsimile images below) are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).


Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

1720, at age 35, while he was still Capellmeister in Cöthen, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) completed his Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato (Six Solos for Violin Without Bass Accompaniment). This was a set of three sonatas (sonate da chiesa) and three Partias (publishers later changed this to the Italian Partita, now commonly used) for solo violin that meant to set the standard for the technical capabilities of this instrument.

The Partitas are contrasting to the sonatas, as they are dance suites, whereby Bach doesn’t strictly adhere to the traditional (French) Suite scheme (Prélude — Allemande — Courante — Sarabande — Gigue). The sonatas, on the other hand, all follow the four-movement scheme slow — fast — slow — fast.

Bach’s original, in the composer’s beautiful, calligraphic handwriting has survived—see the pictures above. It seems close to a miracle that it is possible to create such perfect handwriting using quill and ink! The six sonatas and Parti(t)as are as follows (the two sonatas that Sebastian Bohren performed are highlighted):

The artist gave explanations prior to each of the works that he presented. He did that in a clear and easy-to-understand language: thanks a lot—much appreciated!


Bach: Sonata No.1 for Violin solo in G minor, BWV 1001

The first one of Bach’s solo sonatas, Sonata No.1 for Violin solo in G minor, BWV 1001, has the following four movements:

  1. Adagio
  2. Fuga (Allegro)
  3. Siciliana
  4. Presto

The Performance

First, a general note on the sound of the instrument. Sebastian Bohren’s 1761 Guadagnini features a full, extremely balanced, well-rounded and harmonious sound. Sure, it’s not the original sound of the instrument: like most of these instruments, it has been equipped with a longer and steeper neck (for more tension, hence more volume) and a longer fingerboard (for a larger tonal range). And the E string is a metal string (brighter and smoother sound). The other strings may be gut, but are metal-clad. And the bow was a modern Tourte version. The instrument effortlessly filled the church, projected throughout the venue.

I. Adagio

Bach wrote almost all of the movement in legato notation, i.e., using slurs. Sebastian Bohren played legato, but differentiated the dynamics under each slur (forming little arches), and linking these to bigger phrases, big arches. The only short notes were quavers at the end of a phrase or motif.

The movement appears as an intricate mix of long and ultra-short note values (see the manuscript page above)—one may wonder how a violinist can keep track of the underlying meter. However, while the artist followed the notation, he gently “attenuated” the metric contrast, didn’t follow a rigid pace. This, the differentiated dynamics, and the careful articulation very much made the music feel alive. Not a radical approach: neither ultra-polished, all-legato and with uniform dynamics, nor exclusively focused on smooth, perfect sound-esthetics, nor radically historic, academic, dry, terse or frugal in any way. Rather, Sebastian Bohren’s playing lives from warm expression and a natural, musical breath. — ★★★★

II. Fuga (Allegro)

In contrast to the Adagio, the fugue only features a few ties and some scarce slurs. Sebastian Bohren’s approach followed that in the Adagio—beautiful sonority, in which every tone seems to live. Clearly marked notes (but never crude or rough) in the head of the fugue theme, careful and differentiated dynamics, beautiful cantilenas in all the polyphony, harmonious build-ups in every episode of the fugue. No, fugues can be anything but dry and academic, indeed! The artist even managed to include some soft, intimate moments. My only (negligible) quibble, maybe: bar 83 seemed a little rushed, and I didn’t understand why. On the other hand, the violinist did’t seem to face any technical challenges with all the multi-stop, polyphonic passages, the intonation was excellent throughout. — ★★★★

III. Siciliana

A really beautiful piece in its gently swaying rhythm: a dance movement, even in a sonata da chiesa! Sebastian Bohren resisted the temptation to indulge in excessive legato playing or overly broad articulation: he kept the articulation relatively (but not too) short—a “harmonious portato“, which highlighted the slurred motifs. Marvelous, pure pleasure! — ★★★★½

IV. Presto

Fast, but by no means rushed, not a virtuosic show: a fluent pace, but living in both detailed agogics and phrasing, as well as in the vivid dynamics, “speaking” in every bar. Despite the fast pace, Sebastian Bohren managed to expose the hidden rhythmic intricacies—there were no superficial moments in his playing. — ★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Bach: Sonata No.2 for Violin solo in A minor, BWV 1003

The second one of Bach’s solo sonatas (sonate da chiesa) Sonata No.2 for Violin solo in A minor, BWV 1003, follows the same four-movement scheme. The difference to BWV 1001, however, is not just in the tonality, but also in the increased complexity and length (almost twice as long, as the artist explained):

  1. Grave
  2. Fuga
  3. Andante
  4. Allegro

The Performance

I. Grave

Clearly, Sebastian Bohren carefully, diligently shaped dynamics, agogics and articulation, giving expression to every motif, if not every single note. Yet, the music formed beautiful phrases, arches, with blooming, radiant cantilenas: a flow in gentle waves, ranging from a soft, subtle start to a bright, radiant climax and back again. And the intonation again was virtually flawless (as good as it can be!). One very minor quibble: the demisemiquaver figures in the penultimate bar to me sounded a bit too melodic: shouldn’t this rather be a written-out ornament? — ★★★★½

II. Fuga

As in the fugue of the previous sonata: very clear structuring, clear theme heads, differentiation between main theme and secondary voices, clarity in the “echo dynamics” (f — p — f — p, or “foreground / background”), very careful, diligent and detailed dynamics in general.

A four-voice fuge may seem incomprehensible to many, performing one on a violin near-impossible—Bach managed, and Sebastian Bohren mastered all the technical challenges. I don’t claim that he made the fugue sound easy (it’s definitely a big challenge for any violinist), but with his clear structuring, the differentiation in dynamics and phrasing, he made that movement tangible: a living, compelling performance—maybe with one, minor exception: from bar 262 onwards (some 25 bars from the end), he switched to a noticeably faster pace—why? Relief because the challenge was soon over?? — ★★★★

III. Andante

As the artist mentioned, one of Bach’s most beautiful slow movements (in radiant C major), not just within the violin Sonatas and Partitas. Indeed, it was a highlight in this recital: in this interpretation, that piece was of ravishing beauty, and full of warm emotions, expression, intimacy. Big sonority (let alone constant legato) was not the aim here—rather a characterful tone, careful articulation in every detail: “harmonious clarity”. Nothing was superficial, let alone rushed, calm in the gentle, rhythmic and dynamic swaying: masterful! — ★★★★★

IV. Allegro

Here, in the first part of both halves, Bach works with p f contrasts: that didn’t stop the violinist from forming big arches, keeping the overall structure tangible and under control. Also long chains if semiquavers were always clearly structured and shaped, full of detail ★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Ysaÿe: Sonata for Solo Violin in D minor “à Georges Enescu“, op.27/3, “Ballade

As Sebastian Bohren explained, the Belgian violinist, composer, and conductor Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931) allegedly was the first violinist to use constant vibrato. I haven’t researched this, but Wikipedia states that he commanded over a wide range of vibrato types. The same source quotes a statement of his: “Don’t always vibrate, but always be vibrating”.

In his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, op.27, Ysaÿe was mocking about (or challenging?) six of his colleagues, by dedicating a sonata to them. In each of these sonatas, he used and highlighted a prominent peculiarity of the violinist he was depicting:

All these sonatas may musically be “lighter meals”, as Sebastian Bohren put it in his explanations—however, technically, they are intricate, masterpieces, each with its own, specific challenges. The Sonata for Solo Violin in D minor “à Georges Enescu”, op.27/3, “Ballade, consists of a single movement with two sections:

  • Lento molto sostenuto, in modo di recitativo — Molto moderato quasi lento
  • Allegro in tempo giusto e con bravura — Poco meno e grazioso — Tempo poco vivo e ben marcato — Più mosso

In an earlier posting, I have given a brief comparison of several recordings of Eugène Ysaÿe’s op.27.

The Performance

The first half of the sonata is focusing on legato playing and challenging, intricate double-stop passages. No, Sebastian Bohren did exaggerate the vibrato (despite what he stated about the composer). Of course, there was—had to be—vibrato, but it was controlled, and carefully crafted. Often, tones started without audible vibrating, but then, the melody line grew into harmoniously swaying undulation: broad, sometimes intense, but never exaggerated. the same applies to the occasional portamento. The intonation was very good—though, in this music, particularly in a live performance, it can hardly ever be perfect. Very intense and expressive playing—and beautiful music!

The second half features fast demisemiquaver chains, ghastly running along, temporarily combined with a slower melody in the upper voice, then in blazingly fast double-stop passages—devilish! Sebastian Bohren showed no mercy with himself: he relentlessly (but not rigidly, of course) kept the “con bravura” pace. He sure mastered the piece, again with good intonation (as good as it can be here!), though not aiming for tonal perfection, yet maintaining clarity in secondary voices, and beautiful sonority (as much as humanly possible, certainly never as an end in itself), focusing on expression and dramatic flow.

Rating: ★★★★


Paganini: 24 Capricci for violin solo, op.1Capricci No.13 and No.24

Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) was the most famous violin virtuoso of his time, travelling the concert stages of the world—a “pop star of the early 19th century”. Paganini invented new violin techniques, very much explored and expanded the fronteers of what is possible on the instrument. His famous 24 Capricci (or Caprices) for violin solo, op.1 exemplify the scope of his techniques. The Capricci now have become cornerstones in the education repertoire of top-class violinists. There aren’t too many violinists who perform or record the set of 24 Capricci as a whole, for obvious reasons. However, artists often use individual Caprices as encores in concert. Here, Sebastian Bohren selected two out of the set of 24:

The Capriccio No.13 (Allegro) has its name from the descending, chromatic third parallels, as well as the sequence of octave jumps, which one can interpret as mocking (or sarcastic) laughter. The famous Capriccio No.24 is a theme (Tema quasi Presto), followed by a set of 11 variations and a Finale. In short, condensed form, this Caprice alone explores a fair range of intricate techniques. The theme is very catchy and has been adopted by several other composers for their own sets of variations. The most notable example is Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) with his Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, op.43, for piano and orchestra.

The Performance

13. Capriccio No.13 in B♭ major, “Le Rire du Diable

I would not go as far as calling the above Sonata by Eugène Ysaÿe “musically lighter stuff”. However, I would not object if somebody claimed that Paganini’s Caprices are musically less substantial, rather pure virtuosity! However, Sebastian Bohren did not aim for ultimate speed and virtuosity, at least in the dolce part, which he played really carefully, with diligence and love for details in articulation. The challenge was in the minore middle part, where—for the first time in this recital—the intonation and the purity in execution started to suffer. Signs of exhaustion? — ★★★½

24. Capriccio No.24 in A minor (Theme and Variations)

Here now, I definitely felt that the artist was getting exhausted. There were some excellent bits (e.g., variation VIII with the left-hand pizzicato), others showed superficialities in the articulation, in others (especially towards the end), the intonation clearly started to fall apart. — ★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★


Conclusions

Maybe it would have been better to end the recital with a calm, lyrical piece, rather than aiming for a closing “bravura splash”? This wasn’t the first time that I experienced Sebastian Bohren in a recital with very ambitious goals (towards the end, he did fare better with his own challenges in Lucerne, though). Overall, however, I think we can safely ignore the last Caprice (a human’s physical reserves are limited, and the artist was giving a masterclass in Luxemburg the following day!). Rather, to me, the recital confirmed that Sebastian Bohren is an extremely talented violinist with excellent international career potential and perspectives. And he is also a very friendly and warm-hearted personality—interactions and discussions with him are pure pleasure and delight!



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