Midori Dazzles Technically, Yet Something Missing

United StatesUnited States J.S. Bach: Midori (violin), presented by San Francisco Performances, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco. 23-24.3.2013 (HS)

J.S. Bach: Sonata no. 1 in G minor, Sonata no. 3 in C major, Partita no. 2 in D minor

J.S. Bach: Sonata no. 2 in A minor, Partita no. 1 in B minor, Partita no. 3 in E major

In promoting Midori’s two evenings of unaccompanied Bach works, San Francisco Performances (the presenting organization) stressed that the 41-year-old violinist rarely plays these pieces in public. It’s tempting to say it showed, as the music only sporadically came fully to life, and mostly for the familiar, often-played portions.

The violinist herself requested that these recitals take place in a church—ironic as they were all written in 1720, when J.S. Bach was producing music for Prince Leopold. Under this patron, who had little interest in religious cantatas and masses, Bach produced some of his most majestic purely instrumental works, including the cello suites, the orchestral suites and the Brandenburg concertos.

The relatively intimate St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is a wonderful place to hear a soloist, however. Unlike other vaulted-ceiling edifices, the 118-year-old church (restored most recently in 2006) does not ring with bouncing echoes. It’s a quiet and clear acoustic, with floors carpeted to absorb sound. It’s also human size, holding fewer than 500 in its pews.

If only the widely varying performances had matched the surroundings. Some movements sounded timid, others impressive with bravado and technical mastery. Midori can blaze through demanding pages with remarkable assurance. And yet the partitas, rooted in dances, often limped. Of more concern, it was hard to divine a coherent idea behind her approach. Only occasionally did technique and thought come together, cannily occurring in the final works on both concerts.

Saturday evening’s lineup began with the Sonata no. 1 in G minor and Sonata no. 3 in C major, concluding with the Partita no. 2 in D minor. The latter ends with the awe-inspiring Chaconne, one of the pinnacles of violin literature. Sunday evening started with the Sonata no. 2 in A minor, followed by the Partita no. 1 in B minor and the Partita no. 3 in E major. The latter includes the famous Preludioand the familiar Gavotte en Rondeau. Both programs were played without intermissions.

It became clear that this was going to be a mixed bag in Midori’s tentative approach to the opening Adagio of the G minor Sonata. Playing her Guarnieri ex Huberman instrument without vibrato, as is mostly done these days to emulate Baroque technique, and holding her bow well above the frog end, resulted in some beautiful sounds at medium to loud volume. The quiet start, however, just seemed thin. Her articulation was breathtaking in passages of rapid single notes, each one sparkling like a diamond, but intonation could turn queasy in double stops and triple stops.

She also used dynamic shifts and subtle differences in tone to set off one passage from another, seamless and inevitable at some points but at others coming off as awkward, overlaid onto the music. In the two sonatas on Saturday, by far the best of the eight movements was the Fuga in the C major sonata, and it was a doozy. All the pieces fell into place and the music sprang to life brilliantly. The Largo that followed seemed oddly colorless, merely a respite to catch one’s breath before launching into the Allegro assai finale’s rapid-fire technical challenges (which she met).

Although these sonatas are meant to be purely abstract, their four movements titled only with tempo markings, the partitas are collections of dances. But you would hardly know it from the free rubato of the Allemande that started the D minor partita. Her approach to rhythm was so abstract and oddly paced that if any couples actually tried to dance to the Courante, Sarabande or Gigue they would be in danger of stepping on each other’s toes. After the skittering pace of the Gigue she launched into this monumental Chaconne without so much as a breath of a pause. The quick transition also seemed to inspire a faster-than- usual-tempo in the Chaconne, but she gradually settled into a comfortable gait. And she clearly thought of the work in three parts. She began quietly, building in intensity and dynamics to a peak and receding to a quiet conclusion, before taking a breath and moving into the next part. This was fine until the finish, which concluded not in triumph but with a disappointing sense of resignation.

In the A minor sonata that opened the second evening, her playing was correct and often technically impressive, but the results were best either in the dynamic peaks or in the cascades of notes in faster passages. Quieter sections suffered from some of the same deficiencies as the other sonatas.

No technical issues got in the way of the two partitas, which followed. The one in B minor is famous for adding a “double” to each of the four dance movements—elaborate variations that step up the apparent speed and complexity. Midori caught the flash and dazzle of these with precision but without any sense of showing off. But by far the most complete and rewarding performance of the two evenings came with the relatively short and more familiar wendings of the concluding E major partita.

The opening notes are so iconic they’ve been appropriated by other composers’ unaccompanied violin works (see: Ysaÿe, Shchehedrin) as a nod to the form. Over the centuries the whole Preludio has been arranged for dozens of different ensembles (beginning with Bach himself). From the first phrase Midori seemed like a different violinist, with a level of confidence and much deeper sense of purpose than at any time the entire weekend. She savored every turn of phrase, and even added some of her own decorations and elaborations, most noticeably in the Gavotte en Rondeau and the Menuet I and II.

The Partita No. 3was such a seamless, breathtaking performance it is fair to wonder why she did not show a similar depth of understanding and poise in the other five. Maybe they just need more time to work their way through her soul.

Harvey Steiman