Musical Riches in a Recital for Solo Violin by Benjamin Baker

10/10/2017

Ysaye and Paganini: Benjamin Baker (violin), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 6.10.2017. (GPu)

Ysaye – Sonata for solo violin No.2 in A minor, Op.27, No.2; Sonata for solo violin No.4 in E minor, Op.27, No.4

Paganini Introduction, Theme and Variations on the aria ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’ by Paisiello

A lean figure, dressed entirely in black and with his hair close-cropped, Benjamin Baker cuts an austere figure on stage. But from the moment he played the first note on his 1709 Tononi violin the impression was not of austerity, but rather of abundance – an abundance of dazzling technique, a great variety of tone and colour, a richness of emotional expression. Playing three (relatively) lengthy pieces for unaccompanied violin is a brave choice of programme for a recital, carrying some fairly obvious risks. But from first note to last, Baker compelled complete attention and clearly held a fascinated audience spellbound.

An entire programme for unaccompanied violin, whether on CD or in the Concert Hall, is in danger (especially if it includes no Bach or Bartok, for example) of seeming like an ‘empty’ demonstration of technical brilliance, without much of strictly musical or emotional content. That was certainly not the case on this occasion! Even without recourse to such masters of this rather specialised genre (others include Tartini and Hindemith), Baker put together and then articulated, quite brilliantly, an hour abounding in real musical substance.

That should not come as any kind of surprise where the work of Ysaye is concerned. As well as being a leading figure in the history of the violin, Ysaye was also a distinguished conductor and a composer of distinction in a number of genres. Health problems – mostly related to the diabetes from which he suffered – led to his gradually playing (and conducting) less and less. He retired in 1922 and concentrated on work as a composer. He was very much an all-round musician, well-grounded in the history of music. His compositions reflect and grow out of this grounding, rather than out of a self-reflexive fascination with the techniques of violin playing. It is only lazy thinking which assumes that because he was himself a virtuoso it follows that when, in 1923, he wrote six sonatas for solo violin they were works primarily designed for virtuosi to show off their techniques. Attentive listening reveals them as much more than that. Certainly these sonatas (of which Baker played two) are technically demanding, but the difficulties are required by and in the service of the musical shape and significance of each sonata, and are not ends in themselves.

The second of the six sonatas of 1923, in A minor, is built around a kind of dialogue between two elements: the first is allusion to, and quotation from, Bach’s E major Preludio to his third partita for Violin (BWV 1006); the second is repeated reference to the Dies Irae. One important thing thus immediately established is that Ysaye’s Sonata is in direct line of descent, as it were, from Bach (it even begins with exact quotation from Bach’s Preludio). But the two ‘sources’ which Ysaye is drawing on set up a ‘dialogue’ between, on the one hand, gratitude to God and, on the other, the fear of death. It is around the emotional significance of these two sources of allusion that Ysaye’s Sonata is built and the technical complexities of the writing are largely understandable as emblematic of the effort to negotiate between these polarities, between a celebratory awareness of Life and an anticipation of Death and Judgement. The virtuoso effects (such as long passages of bariolage, very complex and unorthodox fingering, double and triple stopping, abundant sixteenth-notes and, indeed, thirty-second notes in the third movement, striking moments played sul ponticello, extended passages in which the violinist is required to ply with the bow in one hand and play) are thus endowed with a weight of meaning. Baker took everything in his stride, and the results were emotionally very expressive. He embraced Ysaye’s instruction that some passages should be played ‘brutalement’ (the Sonata was dedicated to Jacques Thibaud and the story is told that when Ysaye first heard Thibaud, who was famous for his beauty of tone, playing thgis sonata he stopped Thibaud and complained that his playing wasn’t sufficiently brutal!). Baker was unafraid of the grotesque moments, where, as it were, the instinct to celebrate life clashed directly with the terror of death.

Baker’s reading of the Sonata’s second movement (‘Malinconia’) was particularly fine, opening with beautifully in a manner both meditative and troubled, incorporating some very slow passages and evoking powerful ‘stillness’ of mind with some lovely sustained notes. The transitions (and simultaneities, tears and smiles co-existing) of mood in this movement were exquisite (not in any limiting sense of the word), the two implied voices in a serious conversation, by turns happy and hopeful, frightened and grief-stricken, with a closing quotation from the Dies Irae ending the debate (for the time being).

It is, again, the Dies Irae which provides the theme for the six variations which make up the third movement (‘Danse des ombres’); the theme being initially played pizzicato before being restated with the bow at the close of the movement. In this movement Baker’s sense of proportion and structure was impressive, and did much to elucidate the shape and significance of the music. The final movement (‘Les Furies’) owes more, unsurprisingly, to the Dies Irae than to Bach’s Preludio (though this is not entirely absent or forgotten) and Baker’s playing was appropriately dramatic and declamatory, well-suited to so vigorous a Totentanz, and his commitment to the music was so complete that at times it had the excitement of a complex and sophisticated improvisation.

This Sonata made a remarkable and gripping opening to this lunchtime concert, So much so, indeed, that it over-occupied my mind during the two ensuing pieces. One of these, which closed the programme, was the fourth of Ysaye’s 1923 set of six sonatas.

This Sonata was dedicated to Kreisler (and all the dedications in these sonatass offer clues to the music). One aspect of Kreisler which was perhaps uppermost in Ysaye’s mind here relates to those compositions by Kreisler which, for decades, he passed off as the work of composers such as Martini, Pugnani, Porpora, Ditters von Dittersdorf and others. Kreisler didn’t publicly admit the truth until 1935, but perhaps Ysaye knew, or suspected, the truth in 1923, since the Sonata he chose to dedicate to Kreisler is a fine example of quasi-baroque or faux-baroque. As such it has (like Kreisler’s ‘imitations’) more late-romantic elements than the real thing does, as in the yearning romanticism with which the initial Allemande opens (though, strikingly, it is followed by a very Bach-like theme and an allusion to Bach’s Chaconne in D minor), or the rhapsodic writing in the Finale (though, once more there also echoes of Bach – notably of the Presto from Bach’s First sonata for solo violin). The whole is conventionally tonal, unlike No.2.  Benjamin Baker negotiated both the technical problems and the transitions of mood and idiom with elegance and assurance. Though nothing like so searching as Ysaye’s Second Sonata, this Fourth Sonata contains much that is brilliant and charming, and Benjamin Baker did something approaching full justice to it.

Between these two works by Ysaye Baker played Paganini’s formidable Introduction, Theme and Variations on the aria ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’. Paisiello’s ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’ is actually a duet, sung twice in Act II of Paisiello’s comic opera L’amor contrastato, ossia La molinara (1788, often referred to simply as La Molinara). Beethoven wrote six piano variations on the theme in 1795 before Paganini composed this work in 1821 and Sor followed soon afterwards when using the same aria as the basis for a Fantasie for guitar in 1823. Paganini’s seven variations require great agility from the violinist, throughout their thirteen or so minutes. I have, I confess, heard it played with more quasi-operatic lyricism than Benjamin Baker brought to it on this occasion, but there was certainly a formidable sense of the theatrical in his performance, and it was nowhere short of bravura – this was a real aria di bravura for solo violin. There were passages of striking playfulness in Baker’s reading of the piece and some remarkable speed of execution. There were moments, however, when I felt that Mr. Baker might have allowed the music to breathe a little more, when he might have deployed a little more silence. But the whole was thoroughly exciting, not least in the astonishing closing bars. The expression of joy on the soloist’s face at the close was perhaps mingled with a certain relief – for which no one could blame him. This is not a piece any violinist could tackle (certainly not in concert!) without some degree of trepidation. Though I found this work by Paganini less fully satisfying than the two sonatas by Ysaye which ‘bookended’ it, the fault didn’t, I think, lie with the performer.

Overall, then, a recital both exciting and musically rewarding. Virtuoso violinists, like policemen, seem to get younger and younger. At 27 Benjamin Baker is already a fully-fledged performer, though his interpretations of the violin repertoire, including the great concerti, will doubtless mature yet further. If I say that his future career will be well worth seeing and hearing, I must couple such a statement that he is already a violinist one should go out of one’s way to hear.

Glyn Pursglove

For more about Benjamin Baker click here.

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