Ehnes, MTT and New World violinists celebrate Bach

By David Fleshler

During a Saturday evening event devoted to the violin works of Bach, Michael Tilson Thomas described an encounter with Jascha Heifetz, generally considered the greatest violinist of the 20th century.

Tilson Thomas, then about 20, was in a practice room playing a piano arrangement of Bach’s famous Chaconne for solo violin, when Heifetz burst in.

“He said very sternly to me, ‘Young man, that is a violin piece. It is a designed only for violin, and you will never touch it ever again in my hearing.'”

Although Heifetz, as usual, came off as something of a jerk, violinists could be forgiven for proprietary feeling for these works, which have challenged and fascinated them for generations. This year marks the 300th anniversary of Bach’s completion of his six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and violinists of the New World Symphony joined the renowned soloist James Ehnes and artistic director Tilson Thomas for an online event to explore them.

The event was equal parts talk show, master class and concert—and the concert part got shorted since some movements were severely cut. The Chaconne, considered by many the greatest movement in the whole set, was reduced to about half its length, which seemed a weird choice in a concert intended to celebrate these compositions.

Ehnes limited his contribution to demonstrations of a few passages and the complete performance of  two movements from the Partita No. 3. But anyone who has heard the orchestra in symphonic works knows the violin sections are full of first-class musicians, as six of its violinists demonstrated in performances of individual movements.

The first work was the very first movement of the entire set, the stately Adagio from the G Minor sonata. New World member Brendon Elliott drew a real Bach sound, the chords ringing out cleanly. If some of the phrases could have used more shape and intensity, he played with perfect intonation in the complex harmonies, drawing well-balanced, resonant tones from his instrument.

Yefim Romanov played the Giga from the Partita No. 2. While his tempo seemed a little fast, he had the technical skill to bring it off, and succeeded in bringing a lively shape to the music.

In a famous putdown of the great 19th-century violinist and Bach advocate Joseph Joachim, the playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw ridiculed his performance of a Bach fugue. It’s impossible to really write a three-part fugue for violin, he said, but Joachim “scraped away frantically” to “evoke a hideous ghost of a fugue.”

But Jung Eun Kang’s performance of the fugue from the Sonata No. 2 was virtually immaculate, despite the challenges posed by playing two or three simultaneous notes. The chords rang out crisply, and she brought a strong sense of rhythmic drive to the performance. During a coaching session, Ehnes urged her to give each entering voice a “distinctly different character,” and her adoption of that advice showed, as the voices asserted themselves with each entrance.

In the program, the performance of the Presto from the Sonata No. 1 falls under the heading “Bach the Virtuoso,” and that was certainly the approach by the violinist Ethan Hoppe. He took the movement at high speed. Although that may have left the drama of the movement a bit understated, it was certainly a brilliant display. Natsuko Takashima took a more moderate tempo in the Allegro from the Sonata No. 2, playing in a forceful, lively manner in her brief excerpt.

The honor of playing the Chaconne fell to Chelsea Sharpe, who showed she was up to the challenge. The opening, with its rolling chords and portentous atmosphere, was strikingly effective, not just for the rich, organ-like tones she drew from the instrument but for its propulsive beat and dramatic force. In her playing, the variations built in power to a great climax in arpeggios, which she stretched out for maximum impact. The. Chaconne ended halfway through, when Tilson Thomas appeared on the screen again.

The concert ended with Ehnes playing the Bourrée and Gigue from the Partita No. 3, giving a lively, agile performance that put plenty of personality and feeling into the music.

Posted in Performances

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Sun Dec 13, 2020
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