Francisco Fullana and Apollo’s Fire blaze connections in Ohio  

United StatesUnited States Various: Francisco Fullana, Olivier Brault, Susanna Perry Gilmore (violins); René Schiffer, Mimé Y. Brinkmann (cellos); Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor). Bath Church, Akron, Ohio, 22.3.2022. (MSJ)

Francisco Fullana

Marco Uccellini – ‘La Bergamasca’ (arr. J. Sorrell)
Vivaldi – Concerto in A minor for Two Violins RV522; Concerto in G minor for Two Cellos RV531; La Folia (arr. J. Sorrell)
Bach – Violin Concerto in D minor BWV1052r; Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major BWV1048
Traditional (arr. Sorrell) – ‘Longa Nahawand’

We who become consumed with a love of classical music often spend our listening hours in search of those vital moments that somehow change us, change our perspectives. Perhaps I wasn’t expecting such a moment in this concert, as most of the program was familiar Apollo’s Fire fare: comfort food for devoted fans. But it would never pay to underestimate what can happen in the crucible of a live concert, for my understanding of J. S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in D minor will forever be separated into ‘before’ this concert and ‘after’.

The specific moment when this happened came near the end of the first movement, a piece which became famous as Bach’s Piano (or Harpsichord or Clavier or Keyboard) Concerto No.1 in D minor. I first learned of it through a fine recording by Lukas Foss, and later heard versions by Glenn Gould, Sviatoslav Richter, Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia, Trevor Pinnock and others. The moment in question sees the solo part rise up in tormented chords that chromatically twist and fall over an obsessively repeated low note. On a modern piano’s rounded tones, and especially if the soloist indulges in any rubato, the passage sounds startlingly close to something from Rachmaninov (Bachmaninov?). To avoid that historical anachronism, it has become commonplace to play this extraordinary passage in strict, unyielding time. In many performances, it passes without special significance.

In more recent decades, though, musicologists peered at the score of this ‘keyboard’ concerto and noticed that some of its passages made a lot more sense if they had been originally laid out on the violin. There were many parts that would have fallen under the fingers more naturally on the violin than they do on the keyboard, and an effort was made to reconstruct what was presumably a now-lost Bach violin concerto that the composer had himself rearranged for keys.

The problem with the reconstruction was simply that the work was so famous as a piano concerto, violinists have approached it with trepidation, almost apologetically. In particular, that passage near the end of the first movement has been played very cleanly and rigorously, as if the fiddle players were afraid of sounding like Rachmaninov too. In this concert, the tremendous Spanish violinist Francisco Fullana returned to concertize with Jeannette Sorrell’s masterful Apollo’s Fire ensemble, and alchemy occurred. A hallmark of Sorrell’s period instrument work is breaking the bonds of bar-line rigidity to find the expressive shape of music, and Fullana joined in claiming ownership of this concerto, once and for all, for the violin.

At the moment in question, Fullana tore into the climax, bending the tempo to hang on to those harrowing high chords, then gradually accelerating down the harmonic contractions with an intensity that felt like the exponentially increasing gravity of a collapsing neutron star. It was a moment that made it clear this music was made for the violin. From here on, the piano and harpsichord versions will seem forever lightweight to me, Bachmaninov notwithstanding.

The whole piece was forged in such a manner, and further connections were formed to flesh out its context. The program also featured Vivaldi’s A minor concerto RV522 for two violins. Group members Olivier Brault and Susanna Perry Gilmore were vital soloists, bursting with energy and interaction. But importantly, Sorrell spoke a few words between the pieces, drawing attention to the connections between Bach’s slow movement and Vivaldi’s. Bach was a big fan of his Italian colleague and could very well have taken inspiration from this movement. As Sorrell pointed out, though, Bach gives it a whole new level of eloquence. Brault and Perry Gilmore were brilliant and communicative, and had any soloist but Fullana followed them, that soloist might have been intimidated. Fullana, however, playing the 1735 ‘Mary Portman’ ex-Kreisler Guarneri violin, has no violinist on earth to fear. Other concerts and recordings have demonstrated that he is just as persuasive in standard classical repertory or modern music as in Baroque. Working with Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire, Fullana has found a way to turn music into pure golden energy. Sorrell served not as accompanist but as co-creator of both these extraordinary performances.

Apollo’s Fire performs at the Bath Church in Akron © Apollo’s Fire

The two-cello concerto RV531 by Vivaldi is an Apollo’s Fire favorite, pairing principal cellist (and ensemble cornerstone) René Schiffer with various partners over the years. This time he was joined by European cellist Mimé Y. Brinkmann, and it was the best yet. Where others have made interesting tonal contrasts with Schiffer, Brinkmann was remarkable for having a similar dusky sound, combined with the same extroverted energy needed to make the soft-spoken Baroque cello a voice of drama. Schiffer and Brinkmann dueled and lifted each other up in a partnership that put this concerto on the same level as the other solo works.

No less enlivening was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3. It wasn’t merely Sorrell’s emphasis on phrases and musical paragraphs over bar lines and pages that made the music come to life, it was also the sense of every performer on the stage being totally invested in the outcome. For a time, I stopped watching the overall ensemble and spent a few minutes of the first movement really focusing on the viola section. As far as I could tell from watching the three players – Nicole Divall, Kristen Linfante and Yael Senamaud-Cohen – they seemed convinced that the success of the whole performance was riding on their shoulders. When a motif was passed from the violins, they took it over like a gift from a friend, charging it with energy and life before passing it on to the cellos. That sense of personal engagement runs rampant in this group, and it brings their music-making to vibrant life.

The concert was officially bookended by two Apollo’s Fire favorites, Uccellini’s ‘La Bergamasca’ and Sorrell’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s La Folia variations (featuring group violinists Alan Choo and Emi Tanabe), which never fail to delight. Further bookending the bookends on this occasion were a performance of the Ukrainian national anthem dedicated to those fighting the Russian invasion; and an evening-closing encore of the Turkish folk tune ‘Longa Nahawand’, featuring a blistering solo from ensemble violinist Emi Tanabe, who included snippets of the evening’s concertos in her wild and witty improvisation.

A video recording of one of the Apollo’s Fire concerts with Francisco Fullana will be available from the ensemble for streaming in the weeks following these concerts and their appearance at Carnegie Hall, but one hopes for a studio recording of the Bach concerto as well, considering that it is a genuine game-changer in this interpretation.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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