AUERBACH: Twenty-Four Preludes for Violin and Piano, Op. 46 T'filah (Prayer)
for violin solo.
Postlude for violin and piano.
Vadim Gluzman, violinist; Angela Yoffe, pianist
BIS CD 1242 (F) (DDD) TT: 59:06
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Lera Auerbach is a polymath: composer, pianist, poet, novelist, and belle-lettriste.
She's won acclaim in all these endeavors and has just reached thirty. I first
heard of her when she studied at Juilliard through a private tape of her
playing one of her own piano compositions. I heard a well-written, assured
piece—dark, Russian, and Romantic—but very little grabbed me. I searched
in vain for something personal, individual in the music and came up empty.
The 24 Preludes for violin and piano are more of the same. A bit of Shostakovich
here, some Prokofiev there. Don't get me wrong: she does these folks very
well and one finds moments of great power. However, I'd really like to hear
what she has to say for herself.
However, I certainly don't deny the brilliance or the artistic fearlessness
behind her 24 Preludes. This is no arbitrary grouping of little pieces, but
a sustained totality. You have a prelude in each major and minor key, arranged
unusually (Bach, for example, starts with C major and minor and ends with
B major and minor in his Well-Tempered Clavier) in major-relative minor order
and circle-of-fifths. Thus, the first six preludes are in the keys of C,
a, G, e, D, b, respectively. There's also very often a key ambiguity, beginning
with the very first prelude, nominally in C major. It comes across more as
some weirdly modal g-minor, although Auerbach easily re-establishes the "official" key
by emphasizing a tonic pedal point. Also, many of the preludes play with
the harmonic ambiguity of relative major and minor. Gestures and ideas carry
through from one prelude to another. I haven't gone to the trouble of analyzing
the work in detail, but I understand at least this much from listening. There
are brilliant individual preludes and at least arresting moments in each
prelude—moments where you say to yourself, "This girl is good." However,
there's always the feeling that she's about to break through to something
even better. It just hasn't happened yet, even though she's a hair's breath
away. Furthermore, she doesn't rhetorically vary her devices enough to escape
the charge of rehash, even in a work nearly an hour long. For example, there's
an awful lot of violin recitative over a low piano pedal point. Even though
Auerbach conceives of the work as a large unit, I imagine that if players
take this up, they will likely make arbitrary small groups of individual
items. Unlike, say, Rachmaninoff in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,
she fails to provide a convincing overall narrative. But what do I know?
Predicting the future's a sucker's game. The Hamburg State Ballet has already
staged the entire work.
Two morceau round out the disc. T'filah ("prayer") for solo violin
takes the usual paths of writing "Jewish" music, but manages to
avoid the traps. The soloist becomes, in effect, a cantor. It's a nice piece,
but if the name at the top of the page had been "Bloch" rather
than "Auerbach," it wouldn't have jarred me. Auerbach composed
Postlude for violin and piano on the death of a friend. It's very beautiful,
though very short. Actually, it seems to suspend time.
The 24 Preludes call for a virtuoso violinist and pianst. Gluzman and Yoffe
certainly qualify. They make a great effect in everything Auerbach asks them
to do. I do miss, however, a comprehensiveness—a shaping of the work
as a whole—but, as I've indicated, I'm not convinced it's their fault.
Three stages mark Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's output. The first leans
very heavily on Richard Strauss. The second brings in a kind of hot-house
late Romanticism, marked by languors and oriental exotica and erotica. Despite
my affection for individual works, I have very little sympathy with those
periods. To me, Szymanowski gets going, finds his true self, only in his
third phase—-the creation of a Polish Modern musical nationalism. Inspired
by Stravinsky's example with Russian folklore, Szymanoski hammered out a "Polish
style," as he said, "in which there is not one jot of folkore." That
is, Szymanowski wrote pieces that sounded Polish without resorting to folk
material and without approaching his job as a faux na_. Anyone who hears
the opening to his Stabat mater, for example, feels the presence of a very
sophisticated composer indeed, who eschews no complexity and yet who reaches
the listener's heart directly and without any sort of hitch.
The 20 Mazurkas—as everything else on the program—from the
composer's final period, have the same general rhetorical goal as Auerbach's
individual pieces that nevertheless hang together. The difference is that
Szymanowski succeeds. One thing that ties all the individual items is the
mazurka rhythm, and yet Szymanowski, mostly with a prodigious sense of phrasing,
mood, and architectural creativity, varies that basic rhythm so one never
feels a limiting sameness. Every one of these mazurkas surprises you, not
only in themselves, but in relation to their immediate neighbors. I have
no hesitation calling this set of mazurkas the finest since Chopin. To me,
it inhabits at least the same realm of merit and opens itself up to as wide
a range of individual interpretation.
Valse Romantique and the 4 Polish Dances work at only a slightly lower level
as primarily elegant entertainments, rather than the carving out of a radically
new music. I wouldn't, however, mistake them for trifles, any more than I
would Bach's Italian Concerto. These come from the pen of a master. The finale
of the 4 Polish Dances, a polonaise, raised my eyebrows over my ears.
The two op. 62 mazurkas are the last pieces Szymanowski managed to complete
before he died, a shockingly young 55, of tuberculosis. They ruminate more
than the ones of op. 50. The mazurka rhythm is almost entirely obliterated
in the evocation of improvisation. Compared to the op. 50 set, they seem
to have far fewer notes, fewer lines of argument, and consequently become
more intense. To quote Martin Anderson's excellent liner notes, "virtually
all that is left, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat, are those sharpened
fourths and flattened sevenths." Incidentally, Anderson's Toccata Press
has published an excellent collection Szymanowski on Music, a collection
of the composer's writings edited and translated by Alistair Wightman. ISBN:
Hand to God, I've heard people complain about Hamelin's playing here, and
that strikes me as ungracious, to say the least. As I say, the mazurkas,
both the earlier and later sets, can take widely differing interpretations,
just like Chopin's piano music. I consider Hamelin's approach not only valid,
but successful. It features, of course, the ungodly clarity of the fingerwork,
but more than that, a great propulsive energy. Hamelin really knows how to
move the music along. I love the variety of his colors and the unpredictability
of his phrasing as well. It's not just that the phrasing is merely unpredictable,
but it avoids self-congratulation and the bizarre. It serves and works for
the music. However, Hamelin has always seemed to me an artistic extrovert.
I have heard the op. 50 set played more intimately (and with less clarity)
by a Polish pianist (Hesse-Bukowska) on an old Muza LP. If Hamelin isn't
your thing, you might try looking for the other.
S.G.S. (December 2003)