Benjamin Schmid plays Solo Bach and Ysaÿe, Wigmore Hall, June 2000 (MB)
Coupling the two greatest cycles for solo violin in these Wigmore Hall recitals has proved something of a revelation. Amazingly, it has not been done before - which, given the rarity and general unpopularity of the Ysaÿe sonatas makes it even more welcome. It is a pity, therefore, that attendance at these recitals has been so poor, for the quality of the music making has been consistently at the highest level.
More than 250 years after Bach wrote the Sonatas and Partitas they can still sound 'difficult' music, particularly in the complex four movement Sonatas. The Ysaÿe, on the other hand, now have a newly minted freshness that merges Bachian ideas with a transcendental technical virtuosity which puts them in a class of their own.
Benjamin Schmid's recitals have set out to couple the works thematically, not chronologically. The second Ysaÿe and the E major Bach are coupled, as are the No 1 Bach and the No 1 Ysaÿe (the two G minors), being as they are in the same key and often the same tempos (and in the first 8 bars of the adagios almost identical notes and harmonies). Additionally, there has been an attempt to balance the recitals, so in the first half Bach appears before Ysaÿe, and in the second Ysaÿe appears before Bach - the contrasts in style and technique (as well as the thematic similarities) being highlighted in unusual ways.
Schmid has a big tone which easily fills (maybe overfills?) the Wigmore Hall and for once made one grateful to be sat in the critics' back stalls. But I have often wondered whether a tone as large as this is ideally suited to the transparent intimacy of the Wigmore. The drawbacks were most evident in the Bach where the triple and quadruple chord notes often produced playing that was less than beautiful. Articulation, although mostly spot-on, could also produce bow-to-string playing that sometimes grated. The Wigmore amplifies this, the Barbican does not. This matters less in the Ysaÿe, which despite its even greater technical demands, does not leave the soloist quite so exposed to this particular problem. His playing of the two sets amply justified this view.
It has often been the case with these recitals that the Ysaÿe has impressed the most. The A minor Sonata, in particular, can be counted amongst the finest I have heard of this work. The tone was rich - much more so that Maxim Vengerov in the same work at a recent Barbican recital. The pizzicato passages in the Dance of the Shadows had been perfectly played, and there was a hushed, intimate beauty to his playing of the malinconia that seemed to draw the audience into this mysterious world. It was atmospherically and beautifully done. In both the G minor and D minor sonatas there was a ruthlessness to his intonation which carried the performances off perfectly.
The Bach had often been most successful in the partitas, which were little short of infectious. The sonatas, even today, have a complex sound world which requires perfect intonation to make them work. Whilst Schmid has this by the bucketful, I was not generally as enthralled by his interpretations of the sonatas (which seemed marginally less secure) as I was by the more dance-like partitas. The great D minor had some wonderful things in it, including a ciacona taken at quite some speed. Bach's scores are not exactly heavily marked with dynamic instructions, yet I think Schmid proved subtle in his use of pianissimo and forte. This was imaginative Bach, with a small nod towards the openness of tempo and dynamics one can hear in modern-day Baroque performances.
As with Vengerov, vibrato was used sparingly (and thank goodness this was the case). It is probably true to say that Schmid brings that little more warmth to his Bach than Vengerov did (who can sound slightly cool at times). In the Ysaÿe, there is little to separate them technically, although Vengerov's were the more dashing performances. If Schmid is ultimately a supreme artist, immersing both himself and us in these very different works, it is Vengerov who provides the more expressive showmanship. One interesting, and I think crucial, difference in their playing of Bach is how the bow is held. With Schmid, the bow is held at full length, with Vengerov it is held a third up. As I have already indicated, Schmid's articulation sometimes suffered, whereas Vengerov's was near-perfect. And where Vengerov used gut strings for his Bach (in fact, used different violins for his Bach and Ysaye), Schmid used steel. The sound does become remarkably apparent in such circumstances.
These were generally wonderful recitals. My only regret is that not more people heard them.
There are, of course, many cycles of the Bach on disc. I do not believe that any period performances of these works quite bring out the details sufficiently to warrant a Baroque recommendation, so look elsewhere. Itzhak Perlman's wonderful cycle on EMI is big-toned, but wonderful for it (EMI 7 49483 2) [£25]. Nathan Milstein's (DG 457 701-2) [£12.50] is a beautifully played set with a security and aristocratic poise you won't often hear today. Arthur Gumiaux (Philips 438 736-2) [£11.99]is amongst the most beautiful of violinists, giving us unusually expressive readings with the purest of tone. Henryk Szeryng's mono set on Sony (MP2K 46721) [£11.99] is amongst the freshest. Benjamin Schmid's new discs on Arte Nova (74321 72113 2) [£9.00] are often fast, but also intensely musical.
Until recently, there were few recordings of the Ysaÿe (although Oscar Shumsky made a typically flamboyant recording some years ago). Schmid's own set almost sets virtuosity on a new level and is my preferred choice (Arte Nova 74321 67511 2) [£4.50]. Leonidas Kavakos on BIS (CD-1046) [£12.50] is quite spacious, but the performances are totally convincing. Versions by Yuval Yaron (Accord 200922) and Philippe Graffin (Hyperion CDA66940) [£11.99] are fine, but not particularly special.[Prices correct June 2000]
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