United Kingdom Bach: Liza Ferschtman (violin), Wigmore Hall, London, 5 & 6.1.2023. (MB)
5.1.2023: Bach – Partita No.1 in B minor for solo violin, BWV 1002; Sonata No.1 in F minor for solo violin, BWV 1001; Sonata No.3 in C major for solo violin, BWV 1005
6.1.2023: Bach –Partita No.3 in E major for solo violin, BWV 1006; Sonata No.2 in A minor for solo violin, BWV 1003; Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004
George Enescu called them the Himalayas for violinists. At the same time, he played them throughout his life, a regular, almost daily foundation for his work. Perhaps that apparent contradiction — does even the most avid of Sherpas climb every day? — has something to tell us about Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, or at least about our own attitude, as performers and listeners, toward them. They offer simplicity and complexity, inwardness and heroism, modest integrity and an ultimate Bachian tour de force; like Everest, they are there. What better way, then, to start a musical year with the renewal of such exercise, spiritual, intellectual, and for violinist Liza Ferschtman, technical too? And what better message of renewal might there be to receive than to realise at the close that all, listening included, might have been done quite differently, that there is never, least of all in music such as this, one way?
Ferschtman performed the works over two consecutive evenings: a wise decision, I think, though I have heard the Cello Suites (perhaps more immediately ‘approachable’?) in a single night. First up was the B minor Partita. Ferschtman’s performance had much to commend itself to my ears from the outset, the Allemande light and airy, yet without a hint of the puritanism that, alas, too often accompanies such characteristics. Vibrato was varied, not absent. Dance character was present and felt, yet not a straitjacket. Bach’s harmonic exploration was fundamental, as it were, to Ferschtman’s approach, which above all permitted the music to speak. She took her time, but to allow the music to breathe, not to be ‘slow’. The movement’s Double, like those throughout the Partita, took its leave from its predecessor, kinship and contrast at the heart of its performance; here, it often felt a little more inward, even introverted. A delicately ebullient Courante proved nicely shaded. The Sarabande’s dissonances revealed much, without exaggeration. And a rhythmically buoyant ‘Tempo di Borea’ and its Double imparted a proper sense of completion, quite rightly in a different sense from later-eighteenth-let alone nineteenth-century tonal journeys toward a finale. Perhaps, that said, I missed a little of what might yet bind the movements together, but this was early in my journey as listener too; the fault, if indeed fault there were, may have been mine.
At any rate, the first movement of the G minor Sonata sounded more settled. (Perhaps I am more immediately comfortable with its sonata da chiesa structure.) Its tonality sounded more ‘modern’ too; that is, it certainly did not jettison an older sense of Affekt, but it was far from restricted to it. Ferschtman presented — or I heard — the Fuga almost as if a concerto movement in itself. It bore an intensity born within, matched to a richer tone than that heard in the preceding Partita. Repose in the Siciliana preceded a fine, more finale-like sense of release in the concluding Presto.
Placing of the interval arguably heightened the sense of the C major Sonata opening with a movement quite unlike anything heard previously. The obstinacy of its construction, melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic, fascinated in a performance searchingly traced. That apparent contradiction between modesty and tour de force — resolved, at least in part, in Bach’s ultimate craftsmanship — was to be heard in the following Fuga, which blossomed and, yes, borrowing from the future, developed, Ferschtman our understanding, selfless guide. A lyrical, detailed, and again concerto-like Largo led us to an Allegro assai revealed as an exploratory duet with the self. There are many paths to the tour de force.
The second recital opened with the E major Partita, its bright tonality immediately announcing different mood and thought. (However much we imagine we hear this in the Well-tempered Clavier, and perhaps we do even on the piano, it is surely less ambiguous or at least fraught an idea on the violin.) Brilliant, translucent, and intelligently variegated, this performance’s excellent shaping was just the thing for our second instalment. Plaintive double-stopping enhanced the noble pathos of the Loure. An infectious Gavotte en Rondeau, dancing Menuetts, and sharply etched Bourrée and Gigue completed the set.
The A minor was the last of the Sonatas to be heard. Ferschtman spun a compelling line in its opening Grave, its thread quite properly distinctive from any of those sampled before. There was swing to the fugue that followed: first as release, then as something to extend itself in a way that would surely have impressed, indeed inspired, Beethoven had he known it. Poise, dignity, and an underlying nervous energy that might have surprised yet was just the ticket characterised the Andante, every bit as absorbing in its way. The Allegro, duly substantial in conception, took us on quite a tonal journey, again questioning our historical ideas of final movements.
And so we came to the D minor Partita, perhaps inevitably placed last. Its opening Allemande was finely centred, both with respect to intonation and to tonic harmony. A grittier Courante, a graceful, ruminative Sarabande, and a detailed, well-shaped Gigue, took us to the movement for which, on one level, we had surely all been waiting. The Chaconne was taken a little more swiftly than I had expected, yet immediately convinced. It was beholden to no particular ‘school’: neither vegan, nor in any meaningful sense ‘Romantic’. It danced and sang in equal measure, yet harmony was of at least equal importance — arguably still more so. Bach’s great imagination, heavenly and ever practical, embraced variety and unity so as seemingly to prefigure so much of the German (and not only German) music that would come for two centuries and more in its wake. Above all, Ferschtman’s performance invited me to listen, which invitation I gratefully accepted. This gripping performance of the Chaconne crowned, without sentimentality or complacency, two recitals that had indeed renewed and, it is to be hoped, prepared violinist and audience alike for the musical year to come.