Baroque at its Boldest from Elicia Silverstein

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Baroque at the Edge [II]: Elicia Silverstein (violin), St James Clerkenwell, London, 5.1.2019. (CS)

Elicia Silverstein (c) Axel Bernstorff
Elicia Silverstein (c) Axel Bernstorff

J.S. Bach – Sonata in G minor for solo violin BWV 1001 (c.1720); Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin BWV 1004 (c.1720)
Biber – Passacaglia (Guardian Angel) (1676)
Sciarrino – Caprice No.2 from Sei capricci (1975)
Montanari – Giga senza basso from Dresden Sonata in D minor (c.1717)
BerioSequenza VIII (1976)

The three-day festival, Baroque at the Edge, describes itself as ‘the no rules Baroque festival’.  It ‘invites leading musicians from all backgrounds to take the music of the baroque and see where it leads them’.  The path taken by American violinist Elicia Silverstein in her lunchtime recital in the church of Saint James, Clerkenwell led back to Bach and beyond, to Berio, as she illuminated the continuities and contrasts between music for solo violin composed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that written in the late-twentieth century.

Silverstein’s programme comprised selected works from her recently released debut recording, The Dreams & Fables I Fashion (Rubicon RCD1031), the title of which is drawn from the first line of a Metastasio sonnet, which reads (in Charles Burney’s translation):

The dreams and fables which I often feign,
Fool that I am! a real grievance:
And evils, I myself have forg’d, give pain
Which generates tears and penetrates my heart.

The Caesarean Poet professed to have written the sonnet as a form of moral self-criticism when finding himself weeping tears of distress whilst in the middle of composing a scene of great pathos. If the spirituality, intensity and beauty that Silverstein communicated prompted tears then they were surely those of pleasure and admiration, rather than suffering, as she explored both deep wells of quiet pathos and monumental peaks of passion.  Alternating between a modern and baroque bow, she drew an astonishingly wide range of colours and tones from the gut strings on her 1856 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin, which was modelled on an instrument by Guarnerius del Gesu.

It took Silverstein a little while to settle into Bach’s G minor sonata, and it took me a little while to become attuned to the violinist’s approach to this music.  Rather than emphasising the continuity of tone and line of the arching, searching melody of the opening Adagio, Silverstein frequently allowed the line to taper away, creating a fantasia-like ambience and imbuing the music with a slight anxiousness, a tension which was intensified by marked dynamic contrasts and some surprisingly vigorous fortes on the lower strings.  The following fugue was fast, and Silverstein sustained both the momentum and the formal coherence, voicing the parts with confident definition.  The Siciliana was a little too fast for my liking – I hear something gentler in the soothing flow of the dance – but the Presto flashed by vibrantly, the repeated first section closing with a bravura scalic flourish which looped back to the opening.  The impetuous tempo was both unwavering in its constancy and permitting of phrasal nuance and flexibility.

If I was not immediately won over by Silverstein’s Bach, then her performance of the Passacaglia from Biber’s Mystery Sonata – thought to be associated with the Feast of the Guardian Angel, and the longest single movement written for solo violin before Bach’s Chaconne from the second partita – was meltingly beautiful.  With great tenderness, but also sureness and firmness, Silverstein’s bow brushed the four-note descending ‘bass’ line upon which the variations are built, creating an almost spiritual intensity, one which deepened as the ground was integrated within countermelody or nuanced with chromaticism.  This was clean and finely crafted playing, and as the inventions and elaborations unfolded, precisely and diversely characterised, I found myself almost holding my breath, so compelling – even mesmerising – was Silverstein’s performance.

I confess to having not previously encountered Antonio Montanari (1676-1737) or heard his so-called Dresden Sonata (the undated manuscript is housed in a library in Dresden), but a little research informs me that this D Minor sonata ends, unusually, with the gigue for unaccompanied violin that we heard here.  In contrast to the reverence that Silverstein conjured in Biber’s Passacaglia, here she generated a sense of freedom and energy, digging into her gut strings with real bite and vibrancy.

The contrasts offered by the second of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Sei Capricci could not be greater.  The high harmonics of the opening had an icy beauty, the cool transparency bringing to mind the image that Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe uses to describe the form and colour of her painting in To the Lighthouse: the light of a butterfly’s wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral.  At times, the gossamer whispers slipped into spaces inaudible and ineffable, only for the ghostly quasi-silence to be brutally slashed with aggressive chordal outbursts.  What was both surprising and remarkable was the way the intensity of the physical, technical and intellectual demands was focused to produce music of such delicacy and precious refinement.

Even more impressive was Silverstein’s performance of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII which found warmth and beauty in music which is at times riven by violent emotions and distortions.  With her sheet music distributed over three music stands, Silverstein dug into the opening quarter-tones with an almost angry strength and purposefulness.  The sforzandi were ferocious, the temperament fiery.  But there was quietude too, and Silverstein maintained noteworthy concentration through this exhausting work as she allied technical rigour with expressive insight.

Berio described the central two-note motif as functioning like a chaconne and explained that the work was a tribute to Bach’s D minor Chaconne, so it was both fitting and perhaps inevitable that the latter was Silverstein’s final musical statement.  Again, this was a very personal interpretation, and I wasn’t always convinced by some of the rapid and considerable dynamic fluctuations – for example, the diminuendo in the passage leading to the modulation to the tonic major diminished the affective power of this assuaging modulation – but the line was ever fluid, the bass line determined in direction, and the tone expressively varied.  Silverstein didn’t really carve an architectural space of majesty and monumentality; rather, she emphasised the invention, the fluency and the fancy, punctuating the final sustained tonic with an emphatic and conclusive weight.  This was the Baroque at its boldest.

Claire Seymour

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