ECM Album: A Fresh Take on Baroque Classics

By Rena Slavin

Edition of Contemporary Music (ECM) released an album of sonatas for piano and violin performed by Sir András Schiff and Yuuko Shiokawa on Friday, October 27, 2017.

The album opens with the Bach’s Sonata in E major for violin and harpsichord. As is common in the Baroque style, the two instruments do not have a balanced dialogue but rather a clearly hierarchical relationship between soloist and accompanist. Yet the texture and tone quality of the ornate violin melody against the modest keyboard accompaniment should be cohesive, even if the thematic material is intentionally divided.

Although Shiokawa delivers a pristine performance with a clarity of tone that many violinists would envy, her playing lacks the soft and expressive subtlety best suited for a beautiful melodic line in a slow movement, characteristic of Schiff’s playing. In the fugal second movement, the keyboard and violin are in a more balanced interplay, with moments of fascinating three-part counterpoint. Here, Shiokawa’s clarity deftly balances Schiff’s crisp approach. Yet the first movement’s weaknesses resurface in the third movement, Adagio ma non tanto, which features a flowing melody of call and response. A golden opportunity for chamber musicians, this structure is frankly wasted by two irreconcilable tone qualities.

While both play impeccably, Shiokawa’s performance seems cold and emotionally withdrawn. Nowhere is this more evident than when she takes on a subordinate role while Schiff plays the melody: What ought to be soft and nearly muted double stops, which serve only to create texture and establish tonality, are executed as shrill and obnoxious claims to musical importance.

In the final Allegro, Shiokawa’s tone is bright and lively, and the last movement is perhaps the most successful of the four. The sonata as a whole is underwhelming for the same reason that many other Baroque performances fall short: Musicians misperceive this style as mathematical, playing with precision—and not emotional narration—in mind. While restraint is appreciated in Bach, reticence is not.

Meanwhile, Busoni’s Sonata in E minor is an interpretive triumph. The first movement, Langsam, opens with dark chords on the piano followed by a hauntingly beautiful violin melody over a textural accompaniment. Though the beginning is indeed langsam (slow) and atmospheric, the movement builds in speed and intensity. Shiokawa drives this ascent with great dramatic intensity. A more assertive attitude on Schiff’s part would have been appreciated, but the narrative is convincing as is. The Presto is an energetic tarantella that blossoms into a lyrical violin melody with a change in mode from minor to major. Shiokawa and Schiff’s performance maintains a wonderful dance-like spirit throughout.

Perhaps the most breathtaking moment in this interpretation occurs in the introduction to the last movement. Busoni marks a violin entrance as wie eine Erinnerung (like a memory), and Shiokawa brilliantly delivers this sense of reminiscence when she plays a restatement of the previous movement’s theme. Though a small moment, it is an incredibly executed interpretive window into the temporal structure of the work.

Following this introduction is the last movement written as a theme and variations. Throughout the work, Busoni references earlier composers (notably Beethoven), but no allusion is as explicit as this theme, which quotes Wie wohl ist mir, a Bach chorale. The variations on this hymn-like theme vary from the lively Alla Marcia to calmer and more brooding sections. Schiff and Shiokawa vividly portray the different characters within the finale. The sonata ends with a direct restatement of the piano chords that open the work, though this time they are marked quasi sacro, lending mystery and perhaps a sense of religious gravitas to the piece’s conclusion.

The last work on the album is coincidentally also the last of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin: No. 10 in G Major. The first movement opens with a delicate trill in the violin—a refreshing break from Beethoven’s characteristically strong openings. The rest of the movement retains this tranquility and is enhanced by Shiokawa’s sensitive playing, particularly in the charming second theme. The Adagio espressivo’s beautiful melody and gradual dramatic incline showcase the very warmth and richness that is missing from Shiokawa’s tone in the Bach.

Though the third movement may benefit from a lighter touch, the finale (a set of variations on a theme) is superb. Schiff’s nuanced touch is complemented by Shiokawa’s graceful and agile playing. As in the Busoni, the pair present an intelligent interpretation of each variation’s personality—a strong ending to an impressive album.