Mother’s milk to Alfred Schnittke. As the Russian-born composer moved away from the influence of Shostakovich, he pushed his way past serialism into what he termed polystylism, its first example his Violin Sonata No. 2 (1968). It’s a mash-up, if that label can be applied to an aggregation of sounds and styles, rhythmic gestures and silences – and a tribute to Bach realized (as has been done by many composers) with a musical motif based on the four letters of his name. BACH translates, in German musical terms, to B-flat, A, C, B-natural, which, when the notes are closely gathered, gives two sequential intervals of a second.
Putting the Schnittke sonata on the same half of the bill as the Bach sonata was a piece of programming genius on the part of violinist Itamar Zorman, who performed at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as Arctic winds whipped the campus last Sunday. If you’re going to play one of Bach’s solo sonatas, the usual choice is the Partita No. 2 because of its famous final movement, a Chaconne. But the Sonata No. 3 offers its own substantial rewards.
There’s that strange opening movement, for starters, with its halting sense of forward motion, sweeping its plaint to the violin’s high register with chords arpeggiating upward; falling back down with a reverse of the bow, the chords starting high but ending on the G-string. All of it not truly resolving: we’re left with a dominant chord, the better to welcome the fugue that follows.
It’s the longest and most complex of the solo-violin three. Although the fiddle’s four strings suggest that a four-voiced fugue should work nicely, you’re hobbled by the instrument’s inability to sound more than two of those strings simultaneously. No matter. Bach built them with clever suggestions, grabbing the most-needed notes from non-adjacent strings with broken chords and other arpeggiated figures. The first section culminates in a kind of hoe-down, and the sequence starts again, this time in inversion.
Zorman, who turns 30 this year, luxuriated in his flowing Bach, letting the music speak for itself, understanding that there’s a long-range story to be told through the piece – putting the lie to the canard that you ought to be older before tackling this stuff. The third movement is as lovely a song as Bach ever wrote – why hasn’t it won any stand-alone celebrity? – and the fourth is a wonderfully devilish, highly virtuosic exploration of the instrument’s registers as we pursue a fleet-fingered figure up and down the strings. I only wish Zorman had chosen to take the movement’s repeats. It’s over too quickly, and a repeat is an opportunity for a creative reassessment.
“As soon as the primary auditory cortex receives a musical signal, our ‘primitive,’ subcortical brain kicks in at once: the cerebellum’s timing circuits fire up to pick out the pulse and rhythm, and the thalamus takes a ‘quick look’ at the signal, apparently to check for danger signals ... The thalamus then communicates with the amygdala to produce an emotional response – which, if danger is detected, might be fear.”
Welcome to the musical world of Schnittke. The quote is from Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct (Oxford University Press, 2010), a fascinating, intense study of why music is so important to our growth and well-being.
Schnittke’s Sonata No. 2 announces its intent to dismay with a crashing G-minor chord followed by an equally intense silence. The appeal of any piece of music is both immediate and accumulative; this piece greets you with unpredictable gestures so loosened from melody that what accumulates are pure amygdala-driven responses of discomfort. Enjoyable discomfort, if you’re prepared to surrender yourself to the gestures. Those gestures eventually include sequences of B-flat, A, C, B-natural, the light dissonance of which becomes comparatively refreshing.
In 1992, writing for the New Republic, Alex Ross opined of Schnittke’s growing popularity, “He happens to sate a current American appetite for artists who brood at one moment and go wacky at the next.” There’s a long view in which any skilled composer can be so characterized, wacky being so relative a term, and there’s a somewhat shorter view that allows – encourages – a piece like this one to add its unique texture to a recital program. I’m grateful to finally have been able to witness a performance of it. (Gidon Kremer, who has championed the piece, was asked several times to remove it from his programs.)
Zorman’s debut CD, “Portrait,” announced his intention to mix it up more than many a fiddler, interspersing works by Messiaen and Hindemith with the safety of Schubert and Chausson. Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 31 No. 1, a centerpiece of the recording, started the concert’s second half. Hindemith began his musical life as a violinist (he eventually switched to viola), and the work, like much of his compositions from the early 1920s, pays unashamed homage to Bach – especially the second movement, which takes the dotted-note figure from the Bach sonata that opened the concert and sends it into a cascade of tonality-shifting, triplet-laced figures before quietly ending the movement in the manner in which it began.
The double-trills in the first of the five movements gave another display of Zorman’s skill; the sweet, melancholy Lied of the fourth movement suggested a pair of voices in duet, which is tricky to pull off when most of the section is single-voiced. A muted Prestissimo brought the work to a quick, dazzling finish, and delivered us to the comparative safety of Brahms.
His third violin sonata (also on Zorman's CD) is the most dramatic of the three, and a wonderful example of matched virtuosity between violin and piano. Brahms admired Bach’s solo sonatas – he transcribed two of the movements from the set, including the Chaconne, for piano – and there’s an obvious tribute in the violin’s first-movement bariolage bowing, a favored Baroque technique that characterizes the Preludio from Bach’s Partita No. 3, not to mention the aforementioned hoe-down section of the aforeplayed fugue.
Zorman and Yi didn’t take as big an approach to the piece, especially its first movement, as I’m accustomed to hearing, a restraint they worked to good effect, allowing the sections room to grow. In fact, the second movement (Adagio) gained more of a pop-song character (within 19th-century rigors, of course) with that approach, displaying a sweetness that might have surprised even Brahms. A Beethovenian scherzo leads to a dazzler of a finish, marked by many busted bow hairs, and even when the sheet music suddenly flipped shut towards the end, Zorman was undaunted and ultimately triumphant.
They encored with Joseph Achron’s passionate, little-heard “Hebrew Melody,” a work Achron dedicated to his father; unfortunately, the audience tore out of the hall (and into the cold) at the end of the piece – so the performers didn’t return to the stage – thus killing the chance to hear a work by Zorman’s own father, “Hora,” which was the second encore during last November’s identical recital at Carnegie Hall. We’ve seen a lot of fabulous violinists take part in the Union College series on their way up the career ladder; let’s hope Zorman and Yi return before they’re priced out of this market.
Itamar Zorman, violinist; Kwan Yi, pianist
Union College Memorial Chapel, February 15, 2015