Recorded October 2002 at Radio Studio DRS, Zurich
Here's a conundrum: Leonidas Kavakos and Peter Nagy have selected two works each by J.S. Bach and Igor Stravinsky, for what seems a didactic demonstration of both composers' affinity for an objective "musical science"; yet the violinist and pianist deliver these works with so much feeling that their results seem quite subjective, and thereby undermine the presentation. Granted, Bach's music is often extolled as the summit of craft and rationality, and Stravinsky's repudiation of emotional expression in music - particularly his own - is famous. However, Bach's Partita No. 1 in B minor and the Sonata No. 1 in G minor need not be treated as dry treatises on compositional technique, regardless of their jewel-like perfection. Similarly, Stravinsky's Duo Concertant and the Suite Italienne need not be regarded as mechanical inventions, his pronouncements notwithstanding. So if Kavakos and Nagy render Bach's works with bravado and pathos, and Stravinsky's with tenderness, humor, and joy - which in fact they do - then listeners are none the poorer for it. Thankfully, the original point of pairing these composers is weakened, and the players' sensitivity and eloquence prove that expression is inescapable and absolutely essential to musical art. ECM's sound quality is fine, though a little distant in the highly resonant space.
All Music Guide
As Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich writes in his liner notes to this disc, "Electrical sparks are flying fast and furiously between the past and the future" in this recital by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and Hungarian pianist Peter Nagy, which brings together music of Igor Stravinsky and Johann Sebastian Bach: "a dramaturgical element unfolding…acting to suspend the works in a state of balance."
The music of Johann Sebastian Bach was a touchstone for Igor Stravinsky, throughout his life (Robert Craft reported that he was working on Bach transcriptions even on his deathbed). He revered Bach's music not for its religious or spiritual underpinnings but for its clarity, vigour and motoric energy, above all its sheer craftsmanship. Liberal in his borrowings from classical models, Stravinsky said "I repeat in my own accent" and argued that in submitting to the demands of a given style a composer could find new freedoms of expression. The artist's personality, he said, "is more detached and stands out better when it moves within the definite limits of a convention". The impulse was a progressive one: "A composer can use the past and move forward".
Leonidas Kavakos addressed the same issue in a recent interview with Strings magazine: "I'm totally against this idea that what is composed today should be like nothing that has ever been composed before…While you are looking for something absolutely new, are you sure you have exhausted all the possibilities of what you have?"
The Duo Concertant of 1932 and Suite Italienne of the following year derive from the inspired friendship between Stravinsky and American violinist Samuel Dushkin that led to the formation of their touring duo. From Dushkin, Stravinsky became acquainted with a performing manner that "rejected heavy-handed 'expression' and rhetorical cliches and instead radiated crystal clear lucidity." The composer had at last found a performer whose concept of "interpretation" was faithfulness to the score rather than imposition of his own personality. (Kavakos: "None of us as performers are bigger than the people who wrote the music, I tell you that.")
The Duo Concertant is frequently cited as one of Stravinsky's finest and most original compositions. Jungheinrich: "Stravinsky achieves something like an ideal balance between figurative elements and melody, gestural articulateness and insistent tonal magic…J.S. Bach can be heard as a tacit reference point in all five movements, without ever being quoted literally."
The Suite Italienne, meanwhile, reworks material from the ballet music Pulcinella (1919/20) which in turns took much of its melodic impetus from Pergolesi and other composers of the pre-classical period.
In its way Bach's B minor Partita is also "dance music", its stylized dances, as Jungheinrich observes, "presenting a structurally rather relaxed variant of Bach's solo violin poetics". The G Minor Sonata meanwhile presents Bach's "musical science" in its most concentrated form. Kavakos meets the challenge of Bach's music in both its austere and playful modes.
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Stravinsky and Bach: Back to the Future
All musicians refer to Johann Sebastian Bach, all invoke his name because he is the outstanding exponent of "musical science" conceived as a history-shaping force of developed and developing rationality but also as an artistic ethos that goes beyond issues of compositional technique and demands a commitment and sense of obligation to all periods and regions of (at least Western) art music. This "science" (whose meaning here thus takes on an aspect of practice impregnated with artistic morality) seems to have found both its point of departure and its consummation in Bach. It was German Romantics like Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann who (re)discovered Bach's oeuvre on a broader basis and emulated him in many respects. And it was decided anti-Romantics (coming after the Bach-infatuated, late-Romantic, Gothic macromaniac Max Reger) who chose Bach as their model and as a point of reference for their ideals of objectivity, rigour and emotional discipline. As a compositional master builder whose orientation was rather one of volition, Beethoven may in certain phases (and perhaps in European music even as recent as that of Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Helmut Lachenmann) have been even more influential than Bach. But the secularly and religiously pious Thomaskantor also encompasses other dimensions of non-volition drawn, as it were, from both the subject and the will, of a "cosmology of sound" that first entered Western consciousness through contact with non-European traditions of music and thought (especially in its American dissemination through the concepts of Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage and Terry Riley).
Igor Stravinsky, a man who was rather indisposed to contact, possessed of particular predilections and immutable animosities (in that respect similar to his capricious and equally imperious compatriot, the great writer Vladimir Nabokov), never made a secret of his attachment to J. S. Bach. As high priest of an artistic creed advocating Apollonian clarity and purity, he naturally favoured an image of Bach that was free from Romantic excess. Stravinsky thus seemed to have had little interest in Bach's spiritual depths and mysticism, even though - undeniably a homo religiosus himself-he by no means categorically eschewed such intonations (cf. his Symphony of Psalms). In his theoretical statements, however, he conducted himself with an emphatic sobriety and judged efforts to use music for evoking, imparting, narrating or depicting things extra-musical not only sceptically but with repulsion, repugnance and rejection. Admittedly this attitude had little to do with Bach (who would never have had a problem "preaching" in tones) and much to do with the controversies of recent music history, especially with Stravinsky's aversion to inflated interpretations generated by Teutonic intellectual overload (for Wilhelm Furtwangler,for example, great symphonic music was nothing less than idealistic philosophy translated into sound) and to the vulgar habit of compulsively foisting novelistic, dramatic or biographical "content" on a work while listening to it. The frustrated specialist in him abhorred the public's inability to perceive genuine musical forms and tonal constellations. Conforming to the taste of the time (in whose shaping he played the leading role), Stravinsky renounced music's power to transport, to elicit rapture. He had already paid tribute to that power in the Rite, and perhaps in more sublimated fashion also in Les Noces.
In his later output Dionysus no longer had a place. From now on the tone was laconic, parodic, circumspect, or, at any rate, deliberate - in spite of all the rhythmic and melodic complexity-and without any whirlpools stirred up in orderto persuade and overwhelm. Through such unobtrusive deliberation Stravinsky sometimes approaches Bach's style so distinctly that in the slow movement of the Symphony in Three Movements, for example, two or three bars suddenly will sound exactly as though they might have been composed by J.S. Bach himself.
It may seem surprising that the ironist and parodist Stravinsky, an artist who was always falling back upon pre-existing material, and increasingly upon musical tradition, should initially have shown absolutely no penchant for the solo violin. Its literature seemed to him largely contaminated by a Romantic virtuoso streak with which he wanted nothing to do. It took a personal experience to modify that impression. In 1930, through Willy Strecker of Schott's publishing house in Wiesbaden, he met the American violinist Samuel Dushkin (1891-1976), who immediately proved to be a new type of interpreter, one who intelligently and sensitively met Stravinsky's requirements (though the composer always insisted that his music should not be "interpreted"- like the conductor Sergiu Celibidache later, a musician of an aesthetically quite different orientation, he accepted only the term "reproduced"). On Strecker's suggestion Stravinsky wrote a violin concerto for Dushkin, but he also joined him as piano accompanist on tour from 1932 to 1934. In his luggage were some newly composed or newly arranged works, among them the Duo Concertant (1932) and the Suite Italienne (1933). It would hardly be exaggerating to regard these pieces as the product of a true artistic friendship. From Dushkin Stravinsky became acquainted with a performing manner that rejected heavy-handed "expression" and rhetorical cliches and instead radiated crystal-clear lucidity.
The Duo Concertant is one of Stravinsky's finest and most original creations. A floating, indeterminable "expression" pervades it down to the smallest motivic fibre without appealing to anything extramusical, determined solely by the careful, keen-eared subtlety with which the notes are organized. Stravinsky moreover achieves something like an ideal balance between figurative elements and melody, motoric energy and repose, gestural "articulateness"and cautiously insistent tonal magic. The reality of this music obviously renders invalid all theoretical premises. Thus it comes as an added piquancy that Stravinsky explicitly refers to Petrarch, with whose writings he was increasingly occupied during these years. A quote from the Petrarch biography by Charles-Albert Cingria was grist to his mill: "There is no lyrical language without rules, and these rules must be strict. Without them lyric poetry is only an emotion." In the Duo Concertant, Stravinsky's declared intention was creating "to a certain extent a musical parallel to the pastoral poetry of antiquity"-thus his use of movement titles such as"Eglogue"and"Dithyrambe". The latter, which forms the finale, is particularly wide-ranging and leads, after a tenderly felt beginning, to a frenetic outburst before reverting to a mood of restraint and resignation.The"strictness"which Stravinsky apostrophizes, incidentally, is expressed not in an adherence to neo-classical stereotypes but in an apparently relaxed, in reality highly precise, "exhausting" of the musical material. Without pedantry the quasitonal concentrations are also partly underlined, partly undermined.
As though from a distance and yet quite near, J. S. Bach can be heard as a tacit reference point in all five movements, without ever being quoted literally. Stravinsky's transformative imagination was never greater or more alert than here.
He made it easier for himself with the reworking of some of the characters from his ballet Puiclnella to form the Suite Itatienne. This time (as documented in the score) Stravinsky enjoyed the technical assistance of violinist Dushkin, who thereby guaranteed himself a grateful, tailor-made showpiece. Consequently the work is written as little "against the violin" as the Duo Concertant; indeed - once again squaring the circleit succeeds in being eminently"violinistic"without ever appealing to the vanities of virtuosic brilliance. Of course the suite, like the original ballet, benefits from the quality and catchiness of the melodic substance, which, as we now know, is mostly derived not only from Pergolesi but also from other Italian composers of the pre-Classical period. The "Introduzione" is a jaunty march, at times compact and chordal, at others airy and open. The "Serenata" is a gently lilting siciliana, while the "Tarantella" recalls the lively gigues that conclude many of Bach's suites. Next comes a solemn "Gavotta" with two variations that stay close to the theme. The following "Scherzino"is a bravura miniature. In the "Minuetto"energies concentrate to be discharged in the "Finale" a spirited, raucous closing tableau.
Musical scholars have come to realize that J. S. Bach had already written the majority of his most important, forward-looking works in his earlier or earliest years and that the mature Thomaskantor was essentially able to create out of an existing body of musical material. An especially fruitful period in this respect were the Cothen years of 1717 to 1724 in which, besides the first book of the Well-tempered Clavier (1722), the Orgelbuchlein (1723) and the Brandenburg Concertos (1721), he also produced the suites for solo violin and cello. The exact title he gave the six violin Sonatas and Partitas is"Sei Solo. A Violino senza Basso accompagnato - Libro Primo" ("Libro Secondo" comprised the solo cello suites). Until well into the 20th century the historical idea of the "Age of Thoroughbass" was so perplexing that these Bach pieces were given a harmonic framework through the addition of a keyboard instrument, directly contradicting the score's indication "senza Basso accompagnato" Of course the specific dialectic of these unique compositions was thereby lost: the fullness growing out of their ascetic strictness (a forward-looking element that can be discerned in Beethoven as well as Stravinsky). In this work's conception, too, there is a tricky balance to be articulated: the tightrope walk between dance-inspired "free form" with add-on movements strung together, and a more systematically structured four-movement form that approaches the symphonic principle. Bach, who was not insensitive to fine terminological distinctions, described the latter as "Sonatas" while choosing the name "Parti(t)as" for the former.
There is also a dramaturgical element unfolding in Leonidas Kavakos and Peter Nagy's Stravinsky/Bach recital with its own cunning, acting to suspend the works in a state of balance, striving for a kind of flux in the taring of their respective weights. Stravinsky's Duo Concertant, a masterpiece in every respect worthy of being measured against Bach, opens the programme by plunging vigorously into the midst of intellectual tradition. Bach's B minor Partita follows, with its stylized dances presenting a structurally rather relaxed variant of Bach's solo violin poetics. And yet a movement like the "Tempo di Borea" here displays actual - not just secondarily conceived or imaginary - polyphony in a thematic formulation that can be more readily perceived as clear-cut compositional "setting" than as an elevated dance type. Stravinsky's Suite Italienne represents something of a step back into a lighter and more accessible realm -one to which Bach was no stranger-and possibly also indicates how much Bach learned from the Italians. At last with the concluding G minor Sonata, we hear Bachian "musical science" in concentrated form. That this is played out not only on a level of substantial abstraction is shown by a movement like the "Siciliano", in its turn a bridge to Stravinsky. Electrical sparks are flying fast and furiously between the past and the future.
-Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich (translation: Richard Evidon)