‘Too difficult’, said Itzhak Perlman when shown the score of Noam Sivan’s 2006 transcription, for solo violin, of Liszt’s Piano Sonata. Gidon Kremer said it was a crazy idea ‘but I like crazy ideas’. Meanwhile Joshua Bell was keeping his cards very close to his chest when he said it was ‘intriguing’. Ruggiero Ricci seems to have been the most loquacious, echoing Kremer, noting that ‘At first I thought you [Sivan] must be insane, but at a closer look I must express my admiration. It is very violinistic, and I look forward to hearing it recorded.’
Ricci died well before this recording was made, so we’ll never know how it sounded to him, but it has finally come to fruition and the violinist who has put it on disc for the first time is Russian-born Vera Vaidman. There’s a very nice passage in the booklet that quotes from The Chronicle Herald,
a Canadian publication, which offers a mini-commentary on the transcription. It calls it a thesaurus of violin playing, a marvel of economy, relevance, and thematic clarity. It rightly draws attention to the virtuosic figuration in the accompaniment and to the many violinistic devices employed. Just the double-octaves alone, let alone the pizzicato fugal passage, would be enough to strike fear into many a fiddler’s fingers, let alone hearts.
It’s an outrageously difficult piece of music and leaving aside the obvious questions – who will ever programme it and does it have any independent life as a transcription? - it should be judged on its merits, at least. Fascinating though it is, it strikes me that it sounds more like an accretion of technical devices than a transformation into another instrumental medium. The listener is so fixated on the punishing harmonics, the incredible arpeggios, the triple-stops and so on that he is caught between listening to a piece of music and a lexicon of a super-virtuoso’s arsenal. The work could end up sounding more like an extended 35-plus minute hyper-kinetic study than a creative act in itself. I found my mind constantly wandered to the virtuosic means by which Liszt’s writing was transformed rather than listening to the musical argument itself. This, however, may not be other listeners’ experience.
Vaidman certainly throws herself into the task with remarkable sang-froid. The recording is razory and this accentuates a bluntness of speaking, a rawness that is sometimes uncomfortable. Not all the outrageous demands are fully met – it would need a Ricci to maintain tonal allure as well as technical legerdemain: Kremer I’d have thought would be too wiry-toned. Indeed from a comment in the booklet, the transcriber himself seems to time the work at 30 minutes, five minutes faster than it’s played in this recording. Perhaps that says something for the colossal demands he has made of the executant. In its violinistic guide the music is up to ten minutes slower than the fastest recordings of the Piano Sonata.
She has coupled it with Bach’s Partita No.2 and again the recording is somewhat unsympathetic. Thus her tone is unwarmed and sometimes in certain higher positions she can sound tonally starved. Her playing alternates resinous vigour with quite a measured approach – the Sarabande is taken slowly, for instance.
Notwithstanding this, the Liszt is the focus of this disc. It’s got the look of a ‘stunt’ recording, but as Ricci noted, it’s conversant with violinistic matters to a high degree. It’s worth hearing – admiration for the transformation and the performance will depend on one’s enthusiasm for the whole undertaking.