Sometimes in a place like Washington, you get spoiled musically. (Let's not even talk about what it is like in Paris.) It was only a month ago that I heard American violinist Rachel Barton Pine in a recital at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Rachel Barton Pine and Maud Powell, February 24). Shortly after my return from Paris, she was back to play another recital at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday evening.
To my delight, she opened this time with something Baroque, the G minor passacaglia by Biber. The echo-chamber acoustic of the West Garden Court caused Ms. Barton Pine to bellow her spoken program notes, in which she introduced this piece as the guardian angel passacaglia. It is, in fact, the conclusion to Biber's magnificent Rosary Sonatas (c. 1674), which I last heard live in Manchester two summers ago. Each of the fifteen sonatas was published with an engraving of one of the mysteries of the Rosary, and the concluding passacaglia was accompanied by the illustration of a guardian angel leading a child. I have written before about the hypnotic effect of this kind of piece, built over a descending bass pattern. This was a gorgeous rendition, perhaps not particularly baroqueux in terms of rhythm or embellishment, although she did use a Baroque bow. What Barton Pine brought to the piece, however, was a soaring tone and a careful manipulation of the various voices. It was the high point of the concert for me. (Barton Pine recorded this piece, along with other Baroque solo violin music by Bach and others, on her 2005 CD, Solo Baroque, available from Cedille Records.)
Stephen Brookes, Darkness and Light, From One Violinist (Washington Post, March 28)
Bubbly, talkative, cherubic-rubenesque, Rachel Barton Pine comes across as the Drew Barrymore of violinists. But whatever you may think of former Miss E.T.’s acting abilities, Rachel Barton Pine’s skill at the violin is absolutely unquestionable. In great repertoire she delights, in less-than-great music she still impresses. On Sunday night at the surprisingly empty National Gallery of Arts West Garden Court she did both.
Starting with a Passacaglia by Biber: vibrato-free and in absolutely perfect pitch (and modern, not natural tuning – the latter which can be rather off-putting to our ears), with heft and passionate energy she worked her way through this most simple, yet so searing work. It was the opener to a varied and interesting program, spanning over 300 years – progressing chronologically from Biber to the Mozart obligato to Schumann to Perkinson to contemporary John Corigliano.
Changing from Baroque to regular bow she skipped the programmed Mozart Adagio in E (she had been too optimistic in what to cram into the given time) and landed at the Kreisler-arranged Mozart Rondo in D K382… played as “Kreisler on a theme of Mozart.” And so it sounded: delectable confection, a little bit of which delights, more of which would still be enjoyable, too much of which would require a Schnapps.
Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 saw her with pianist Matthew Hagle as a very sensitive partner (who didn’t get the due credit for his excellent contribution in this and the Corigliano) who also knew how to navigate around the pitfalls of the West Garden Court’s acoustics while Ms. Barton Pine delighted with her smooth, entirely convincing, and warmly Romantic performance in which her 1742 Ex-Soldat Del Gesu had a good part. It was the kind of performance that sold this little semiprecious as a rare gem; just the way you’d want Schumann to sound.
The 1972 Coleridge Taylor Perkinson Blue/s Forms (“Plain Blue/s” – “Just Blue/s” – “Jettin’ Blue/s”) had Bach in the first notes and then rubbering, slippin’ and slidin’ through the notes with bluesy elasticity. Very catchy and superbly composed – and played. “Jettin’…” was pure joy to listen to. The craving of Ms. Barton Pine’s to play American music whenever in Washington is commendable so long as it brings us Taylor Perkinson or John Corigliano’s sonata. But it’s getting out of hand with the fiddle-ho-humm muzak of Mark O’Connor. Perhaps if you shut “classical” mode off it might become more interesting, but I can’t shake the notion that it sounds like Jeff Foxworthy had become a composer. The idea of tracing American fiddling from inception to modernity is not bad – but the result just doesn’t live up to it. Reducing the pianist to a chord-pressing automaton surely didn’t underwrite the compositional brilliance of this work.
If brevity… Corigliano’s fun sonata has plenty of wit and employs it with refreshing efficiency. Whether in the wild outer first movement or the Andantino (lyrical on shifting axes with a sense of violence underneath a calm surface and occasional stormy interludes), this is plain good music that sounds fresh despite or because of being hopelessly reactionary (yet also decades ahead) at the year of its inception, 1963. Barton Pine Yankee-Doodled around with Henri Vieuxtemps's Souvenir d'Amérique for an encore. Nifty, at best: but a violinist so truly impressive as her, the snob will easily forgive all programming choices.
Most of the program was equally entertaining if not quite as striking. Fritz Kreisler's arrangment of Mozart's Rondo in D Major, K. 382, is of sentimental value to Ms. Barton Pine, she explained in her comments (she played it often when she was "in the single digits," as she put it). It was a seductive reading, outrageous cadenzas and all. I would not be surprised if Mozart approved of the sense of showmanship. I was impressed by Barton Pine's reading of the Schumann first sonata, op. 105, a piece that does not always impress. The end of the first movement (Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck) was magnificently dramatic and powerful, to the point that the audience applauded, and rightly so. The second movement (Allegretto) was, by contrast, all interior monologue and understatement.
The other two works on the program were examples, good and bad, of how to incorporate popular music into a classical work. Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, a scholar at the Center for Black Music Research, used blues idioms in his Blue/s Forms for unaccompanied violin (1972), but the jazz sounds have been fully digested and the resulting sound is not merely jazz played on the violin, but something new and interesting. (A historical example of this "good crossover" is the quodlibet that concludes the Goldberg Variations, where Bach quotes snatches of beer-hall ditties and other tunes, but as part of an incredibly complex piece that is much more than just popular song quotations.)
On the negative side was the concluding piece, Strings and Threads by Ionarts bête noire Mark O'Connor. Ms. Barton Pine charitably described the work as "13 short pieces" that give a "history of fiddling in America." All I can say is that I wish it had been a whole lot shorter. A judicious selection of movements -- let's say two? -- would have been preferable to the whole deadly thing. I thought poor Matthew Hagle, whose talents were squandered on a series of chords and vamps, was going to fall asleep. O'Connor does his old schtick, conjuring various popular styles, often with terribly difficult playing for the violinist (all handled with aplomb by Barton Pine). It is some of the most repetitive and derivative music ever to enter my ears. Little matter, in what was an excellent recital.