Vadim Gluzman Harks Back to a Golden Age of Violin Playing

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S. Bach, Brahms, Lena Auerbach, Tchaikovsky: Vadim Gluzman (violin), Angela Yoffe (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 1.4.2016. (CS)

J.S. Bach – Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin BWV1004 (trans. Robert Schumann)
Brahms – Violin Sonata No.1 in G major, Op.78
Lera Auerbach – Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano (September 11) Op.63 (2001)
TchaikovskySérénade mélancolique in B minor, Op.26 and Valse-scherzo, Op.34

When Vadim Gluzman walks onto a stage platform, holding his violin before him, eyes are as much on his famous instrument as on the virtuoso who will play it. Courtesy of the Stradivari Society of Chicago, Gluzman plays Stradivarius’s 1690 ‘ex-Leopold Auer’ violin, so-called because it was once owned by Hungarian virtuoso Leopold Auer (1845-1930).  Having studied under the celebrated virtuoso, Joseph Joachim, Auer then himself achieved renown as a teacher, and numbered among his pupils such fine performers as Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein.

Gluzman’s violin thus seems to embody a line back to a golden age of violin playing. One imagines that performing on this Strad brings with it quite a responsibility, but the Ukrainian-born Israeli violinist seemed unruffled by an sense of obligation to the past, assuming an unaffected and nonchalant manner throughout this performance.  However, his gorgeous, rich tone and flawless, well-schooled technique did remind one of Auer’s promulgation of a ‘School’ of violin playing, commonly associated with German tradition but which was also instrumental in establishing the Russian and American Schools.

Gluzman’s sound swelled effortlessly through the Wigmore Hall, and he made even the most demanding techniques look easy. His accompanist (and wife), Angela Yoffe, was more than able to match his relaxed élan and polish; indeed, it was the crystalline definition of Yoffe’s exquisitely delineated voicings, allied to the radiant tone that she conjured from the Wigmore’s Steinway, that most commanded my attention and admiration during this recital.

Vadim Gluzman’s violin may remind one of ages past but the violinist is himself fully engaged with the music of the present and regularly performs contemporary work by composers such as Giya Kancheli, Peteris Vasks, Lera Auerbach and Sofia Gubaidulina. In 2011 he gave the UK premiere of Michael Daugherty’s Fire and Blood Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra under Kristjan Järvi and, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Søndergård, he introduced Balys Dvarionas’s Violin Concerto to the UK in 2013.  Gluzman has particularly championed the music of his friend and contemporary, Lera Auerbach: with Yoffe he has recorded several of Auerbach’s works for violin and piano (review) and the duo’s most recent CD for BIS featured the world premiere recording of Auerbach’s par.ti.ta for solo violin as well as music by J.S. Bach and Ysaÿe (BIS-SACD 1972).

Born in Chelyabinsk, a Russian city near Siberia, in 1973, Lera Auerbach defected from the Soviet Union during a concert tour in 1991 and since then New York has been her home. Auerbach’s second sonata for violin and piano is an expression of the composer’s feelings in the immediate aftermath of the attack on World Trade Center in 2001: as she explains, ‘I started to write the piece on 12 September.  Everything else had to wait … Like the Phoenix, who dies in order to be born, this piece was born from death.’

‘All the different emotions’ that Auerbach experienced are assimilated in this impassioned, dramatic work which is a whirlwind of conflicting sentiments: fury is expressed with intense eloquence, quiet reflections break out in brash eruptions of angry impotence. Silence is juxtaposed with barbarism.

The discordant agitation and brusqueness of much of the writing evokes the inheritance of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Schnittke, but the voice is idiosyncratic and personal, incorporating introspective and meditative expression as well as explosive virtuosity. Gluzman’s initiating frenzy of string crossings and double-stopping was answered by defiant interjections from Yoffe but before long the anger was subdued by the piano’s gently caressed, repeating rhythms. The elisions between the violin’s mournful reflections and the outbursts of imitative fury were expertly effected by Gluzman and Yoffe. In the cadenza-like episode towards the close, the violinist both soared exultantly, exploiting the glorious sheen of his E-string, and roved with richness and strength high on the G-string.  There was both light and pathos when an allusion to the melody ‘America the Beautiful’ was quietly sung by the violin.  Intensely heartfelt, Auerbach’s sonata is full of fire and theatre but also poetry. (In addition to her work as a composer, Auerbach also writes and paints; in 1996 the International Pushkin Society of New York named her Poet of the Year.)  The final lines of her poem ‘September 11’ are an eloquent complement to the closing bars of the sonata in which the violin floats into silence:

The ashes of people are in our blood.
This silent cry has no answer.
The ashes of people are in our guts.
We will never be the same.

The dead grow their roots in our hearts.

If Gluzman and Yoffe made an utterly convincing case for Auerbach’s sonata, the opening work in the programme, Robert Schumann’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s D minor chaconne, had the feel of a perfunctory play-through. To enjoy this work, I guess that you need to take it on its own merits.  Having been captivated by Ferdinand David’s performances of the Bach sonatas and partitas, for which an accompaniment was composed by Mendelssohn in order to appeal to early 19th-century audiences unfamiliar with and not naturally disposed towards Bach’s idiom, Schumann’s own arrangements were designed to bring the works to a wider public.  From a 21st-century perspective (especially if one is a violinist!), it’s hard not to find the intrusion of the piano into the violin’s richly figured explorations of the harmonic implications of the chaconne – as Bach makes an exhaustive and perfectly realised journey through the idioms of the instrument – somewhat grating.

It did not help that Gluzman launched into the opening statement of the chaconne theme with undue haste, seeming to make little effort to consider or communicate the inherent tensions within the harmonic arc which initiate such rich developments and conflicts. So much of the power of a solo performer’s rendition of this work depends upon his or her skill in shaping the inner and bass lines, in appreciating how the line unfolds across the voices and using technique to sustain this thread; inevitably, the piano seems to usurp this role and, despite the clarity and thoughtfulness of Yoffe’s playing, she was not able to avoid the effect of undue emphasis on the bass line.  Gluzman produced a huge sound, though; in the dazzling central episodes, he did at least match the tumbling demisemiquavers which Schumann borrows from the violin and gives to the piano left hand.  But, the transition to the tonic major, surely the Chaconne’s most magical moment, was swift and inconsequential.

Perhaps it is Schumann’s ‘fault’ that in this arrangement the Chaconne is transformed from elusive, metaphysical rhapsody to bravura show-piece. But Gluzman, whose glance was not once raised from the score, did not seem particularly concerned to give Schumann’s arrangement its own identity.

Brahms’s G Major Sonata was a different matter. Dedicated to Joachim – another link in the historical chain – the sonata’s inspired and uninterrupted melodic outpouring found mellifluous voice in Gluzman’s hands.  His smooth, full tone communicated directly and if occasionally the intensity was somewhat unalleviated or overdone then the tenderness of Yoffe’s intricate accompaniment was a beguiling complement.  Even the densest passages were touched by clarity and air, and the power of the piano’s arguments was expressed without obvious physical effort, truly arising from within the music.  Yoffe plays with real animation, and time and again she turned to Gluzman, engaging actively and generously with his melodies, and exhibiting vivid enjoyment from the music.

However, in both the mysterious development of the Vivace, ma non troppo and the contemplative Adagio, there were moments where the mystery and poetry were missing.  Conversely, Gluzman’s insistent intensity and lacking of expressive shading meant that the climaxes of the first and last movements, while beautiful of tone, did not make their full impact.  Coincidentally, as I reflected on this performance BBC Radio 3’s Saturday morning ‘Building A Library’ was being broadcast and was devoted to Brahms’s G Major sonata, offering a timely opportunity to reflect on historic and recent interpretations and suggesting to me that for all its commanding virtuosity, Gluzman’s performance lacked real freshness.

Two works by Tchaikovsky concluded the programme, Sérénade mélancolique in B minor, Op.26 and the Valse-scherzo in C, Op.34, thereby forging another link to the past for the composer had been so taken by Auer’s ‘great expressivity, the thoughtful finesse and poetry of the interpretation’ that he dedicated his Concerto and the Sérénade to the violinist (though that latter dedication was later withdrawn).

In the Sérénade Gluzman occasionally withheld the sound, introducing a welcome lightness and sweetness which contrasted expressively with the more intense forays up the G string, and the soaring ending was beautifully soft and mild.  The Valse-scherzo offered a buoyant showcase for Gluzman’s technique; the violinist’s rendering of the agile waltz theme was fleet and elegant, while the profusion of double-stopping in the cadenza evoked grandeur and audaciousness.  Even if this recital was a mixed bag, there was much to enjoy and admire.

Claire Seymour

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