Photo (c) Laszlo Emmer
Barnabás Kelemen (violin) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 9 November 2015
Listening link (open in a new window):
on the iPlayer until 9 December
In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify:
What’s the music?
J.S. Bach: Partita No. 2 in D minor (1720) (30 minutes)
Ysaÿe: Violin Sonata No.3, ‘Ballade’ (1923) (6 minutes)
Paganini: 4 Caprices (from the 24 Caprices Op.1) (1802-17) (12 minutes)
Piazzolla: Tango Étude no.1 (1987) (3 minutes)
What about the music?
It’s quite possible to think of the violin as an ancestor of the guitar when you listen to this music. Some of it appears to be purely for show-off, especially when you get to the incredibly testing works by Ysaÿe, Paganini and Piazzolla, but when you look closer they are actually found to be musically proficient as well as technically demanding.
If Paganini was alive today I would imagine him behaving a bit like the guitarist Steve Vai, performing superhuman feats on his instrument but making sure at all times that not a note was wasted. That much is true in each of the famous Caprices, written for solo violin in a way that taxes all kinds of techniques with the performance of the instrument. The four here test the violinist’s ability with rapid string crossing, with playing three or four notes at the same time, and with rapid fingerwork.
Ysaÿe was also a virtuoso violinist, one who enjoyed dedications from Franck (his Violin Sonata) and Debussy (the String Quartet). Not much of his music is heard today, and when it is the Solo Violin Sonatas such as the one in this recital tend to be picked. Ysaÿe also taxes the violin but again ensures it is not just for display purposes. Piazzolla, meanwhile, was not known primarily as a violin composer, and his Tango Studies were originally written for the flute, but they transcribe naturally for the instrument, which can supply the rhythmic ‘snap’, as well as the other nuances that make the tango such an intense method of musical expression.
J.S. Bach’s Partitas for the solo violin come from a very different viewpoint. As in much solo Bach there are moments in these pieces where the listener feels as though they have entered a different time dimension, Bach’s treatment of his musical material so inevitable and so effortlessly calculated that it feels like the passing of time. The Solo Violin Partita no.2 is one of his most famous examples for a solo instrument, partly for the massive Chaconne with which it ends – a series of 64 variations on a small but ever-present loop.
I wonder how many notes Barnábas Kelemen played in the course of this hour of music? Certainly Paganini ensured there were as many as possible in the selection of Caprices that he played, while Ysaÿe too packed a load into his brief but strikingly intense Solo Sonata.
Brilliantly played though this recital was, it could have done with a little more light and shade in the programming. The shade was to be found in the Bach, which was a really convincing account and was clearly a work close to Kelemen’s heart. He was relatively slow in the Allemande dance, which was an effective tactic as it meant the Gigue carried greater impact – though of course everyone was really waiting to see what he did with the Chaconne. Here Kelemen demonstrated a very firm grasp of the form, making a natural build through the 64 different variations, Bach’s vision growing in power and impact until it carried all before it.
Staying in the same key for the Ysaÿe was a brave but effective move, and this brief piece carried a Romantic intensity. It was good to be reminded of the Belgian composer’s genius, for his is not a voice often heard. Following this with Paganini was perhaps a step too far, like a mixed grill with no vegetables if you’ll pardon the parallel! That said, the Devil’s Laughter was brilliantly evoked in the last of the four caprices. Finally the Piazzolla, while harnessing the rhythms of the tango, was a bit too short to fully appreciate.
Kelemen is clearly a player of great ability – and although this recital might be better experienced in two takes, it demonstrates his technical prowess and keen musicality.
What should I listen out for?
1:42 – the Partita begins with a relatively slow dance, the Allemande. Kelemen does not use much vibrato to begin with, and his violin has a penetrating tone. As with much of the best Bach the music appears to unfold in a single, natural phrase.
7:08 – the Courante is much more purposeful, the notes quicker and the tone fuller. Bach drives the music on with a persuasive triple-time rhythm that Kelemen takes quickly. The tone of the instrument is also a bit brighter, the notes in a slightly higher register.
9:49 – the slow dance, the Sarabande – where the minor key really comes into its own. Here the violin is asked to do a lot of ‘multiple stopping’, which is playing more than one note at once, effectively making its own chords.
12:28 – the Gigue, another triple time dance that Kelemen takes at quite a lick, but which still has plenty of contrast with the repeats being used in each of the two sections. Bach gathers a lot of energy here, and as often uses the Gigue as the last dance form in his suites, but there is no feeling of finality here because we still have one movement to go…
17:47 – and that final movement is a massive one, the Chaconne, famously performed separately or reinterpreted for other instruments. The violin begins with a grand statement of a chord sequence which it then proceeds to spin out over 64 variations, mostly in the minor key but moving to the major at 24:44. Bach gives an enormous variety of colour, speed, attack, repose and musicality, starting relatively slowly but moving to passages of increasing difficulty and intensity, notably the string-crossing passage from 22:45, but this is also one of his most profound pieces of music when interpreted well. The music turns back to the minor key with impressive dramatic effect at 28:14.
33:08 – a slow beginning, acting as an introduction, before the sonata itself begins at 33:27 with a theme that sounds quite oriental. Although set in D minor the music rotates around that centre at quite a distance, and there is a lot of multiple stopping here. Despite the considerable virtuosity required there is a powerful musicality at the heart of this piece, which never uses display for the sake of it.
40:37 – the Caprice no.1, almost laughably, is marked Andante (at a walking pace!) It certainly doesn’t begin that way, with a fiendish set of arpeggios facing the violinist. As the bow bounces across the string it is clear however that each of these notes is important, despite the obvious display tactics!
42:07 – the Caprice no.7 is much slower, and presents its theme in octaves – which any string player will know is an invitation for cramp! There is an eerie feel to the presentation of the notes, though soon Paganini can’t resist taking off at a great speed again. At 44:58 the music really goes out the blocks!
45:44 – the Devil’s Laughter of the Caprice no.13 is surely one of the most descriptive things Paganini wrote for the violin, and it crops up at disarming intervals in this piece, in and around the fiendish technical demands of the central section, set in a tempestuous minor key.
48:07 – the famous Caprice no. 24 was the basis of variations written by Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski (not to mention the South Bank Show theme!) but here it is in its original form, for solo violin. This Caprice is in itself a set of variations, and has a wonderful effect of tumbling pizzicato (plucking) at 50:34.
53:31 – immediately the snappy tango rhythms are evident in the first tango etude, which sounds as though it was written for violin all along. The technical demands are not as extreme as some of the other music on the program, with a grasp of the tango rhythm the most essential part of the performance.
Taking Paganini’s Caprice no.24 as a starting point, the Spotify playlist above includes Rachmaninov’s famous Variations on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, as well as Lutoslawski’s Variaions on the same theme for two pianos. Finally, it is a good chance to air one of six substantial concertos that Paganini wrote for violin and orchestra, works that are hardly ever heard in the concert hall these days. The second is one of the best, known as La Campanella because of the tune used in the last movement.