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Written by Lynn René Bayley   
Wednesday, 06 February 2013

Maria Bachmann’s French Fantasy

Review assignments taken at almost the last moment before one’s deadline, at least for me, are predicated on one thing first and foremost: Do I really like this artist’s performance style? In the case of violinist Maria Bachmann, it wasn’t even close. Listening to the very first track of her new CD, French Fantasy, it was love at first hearing. As you will see in my review that follows what immediately struck me about her playing of Debussy’s Beau soir was the highly vocal quality of her violin playing—a quality one does not hear in all string players, and certainly not very often in modern performers. But there it was: a communicative element that grabbed me from the first notes and did not let go until the entire CD was finished. I simply had to interview this marvelous musician, and in poking around her website I learned that Bachmann is also a composer, the director of a music festival, and a lover of jazz, three more tidbits that made me want to learn more about her. Since she has already been interviewed in these pages, however, I decided to restrict my questions to these particular facets of her musical personality as well as her current CD.

Q: OK, Maria, let’s start with the thing that stunned me the most. In Beau soir , were you trying to emulate either a specific singer or, as I alluded to in my review, Clara Rockmore’s theramin? Your timbre was so CLOSE to a theramin in that selection that I was literally bowled over.

A: I’m always interested in exploring the various timbres and colors the violin can make and use them as expressive tools. I didn’t have a singer or the theramin in mind for Beau Soir , but I did have a certain sound in mind—something smoky, warm, bluesy, and sensual. The singers I think of with that kind of sound are Billie Holiday and Mel Tormé. I like to think my sound palette includes their voices and many other singers that I love, like Maria Callas, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Kathleen Battle, Sarah Vaughn, Mick Jagger, and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. I’m constantly searching for more sounds and listen a lot to singers, pianists, and string players in all kinds of music from classical to jazz, rock, reggae, blues, Cuban, tango, Brazilian music, and much more.

Q: I also noted that you used different rates of vibrato for different movements of the sonatas, as well as altering the rate of vibrato within each movement. Can you talk a little about how you modulate your vibrato?

A: To my mind, the vibrato and bow arm work together to create the sound, with the emphasis slightly more on the left hand than the bow arm. For French music, I feel the sound should be airy, ringing, and effervescent rather than thick. To achieve a sound I think of as “French,” I use a wide fast vibrato with not so much left hand finger pressure, and fast bow speed with light pressure. The sound rings a certain way that is light but strong. I like to vary my vibrato depending on where we are at any given moment in the piece and where we are in the architecture of the movement. If the music is at a starting point or at a less intense moment, I’ll use less vibrato and perhaps a slower vibrato. Then as the music gains intensity or reaches an important structural point, I’ll increase the amount and speed of vibrato. Contrastingly, in romantic German music, let’s say Brahms, I’ll use a much fatter core sound. To achieve that I use more left hand finger pressure with my vibrato, and slower bow speed with concentrated pressure. To my ears, that makes a thicker, more “German” sound.

Q: I was fascinated to learn that you’ve studied a great many of Jascha Heifetz’s violin transcriptions, among them the Beau soir, yet on your website I learned that you’ve made your own arrangements of the Porgy and Bess tunes for piano trio. Were these based, at least in the violin parts, on the Heifetz arrangements?

A: Absolutely yes—my trio arrangements are based on the Heifetz arrangements—he did them so magnificently. Besides adding a cello part, I tried to make my trio arrangements a bit more modern and jazzy. I think they can use a bit more of a jazz approach—more spontaneity and almost (but not quite) improvisatory solos.

Q: I was also surprised, but delighted, to see a quote from you that “If I weren’t a classical musician, I’d be a jazz musician. I listen to jazz constantly and find a lot of it very inspiring.” I simply have to explore this further! Let’s start with what specific styles of jazz, or performers, you find most inspiring?

A: The jazz I listen to tends to be mostly the classics though I do listen to some more contemporary jazz as well. My favorite artists are Oscar Peterson, Satchmo, Ella, Billie, Miles, Django, Coltrane, Pass, Kenny Barron, Bill Charlap, Karrin Allyson, George Shearing, Kenny Burell. There are so many. I love both the technical precision and clarity of the jazz greats, and also their willingness to really “go for it” no matter what the consequences. When you hear Oscar Peterson ripping through some things, you sometimes think he’s going to fall off the keyboard or something dreadful is going to happen because he takes so many risks. I LOVE that!! I try to take risks like that in my performances. I think it brings a certain “heat” and energy, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun for me! Usually it works out—you get used to the risk taking and it becomes part of your performing style.

Q: Are you familiar with the work of such jazz violinists as Joe Venuti, Eddie South, Stéphane Grappelli, Stuff Smith, Ray Nance, Michel Warlop, and/or Jean-Luc Ponty? Also, I’m curious to know if you’ve heard the Grappelli-Eddie South recording of the Bach Double Concerto with Django Reinhardt?

A: I am very familiar with Grappelli, Venuti, and Stuff Smith. My favorite is Grapelli—but they are all amazing! I don’t know the Grappelli/South Bach Double and am very curious to hear it! I really would like to play jazz—in an authentic way, someday! I should also mention my favorite classical violinists: Oistrakh, Heifetz, Milstein, Szeryng, and Kreisler.

Q: Moving on to French Fantasy, I suppose that the repertoire sort of selected itself? I can’t imagine a violin recital of French music that wouldn’t include sonatas by those particular composers…or was there a process where you selected one sonata over another?

A: At first, I considered having the Fauré A-Major Sonata on this disc, but ultimately felt the Debussy and Saint-Saëns works brought more variety and contrast to the Franck. The Franck is the centerpiece in my mind. I love the colors of the Debussy Sonata and a certain Beethovenian directness of the Saint-Saëns Sonata. And I had to include Beau Soir —just one of the most gorgeous pieces ever written.

Q: Is Adam Neiman one of your regular accompanists? I was really impressed by the completely sympathetic quality of his accompaniment…it sounds as if you’ve been playing with him for years.

A: Adam and I have been friends for about 10 years, and we started playing chamber music together about four years ago at our festival in Telluride. From our first time playing together, things just clicked…our musical instincts are very simpatico . It does feel like we’ve played together for many more years than that, but this is our first recording together.

Q: Regarding phrasing, one thing that continually struck me while listening to this recital was the manner in which you switched back and forth between lyrical and rhythmic passages. There seemed, to me, to be no “gear changes,” and I’m not just talking about technique. I’m talking about the musical “feel” of the performance. Somehow it sounded almost as if the rhythmic passages “grew” out of the lyrical ones, but I know it couldn’t have been that easy to achieve. Was there anything you did specifically in practicing to negotiate those completely different rhythmic styles with such smoothness?

A: I don’t have a specific way of practicing such issues, but what is of utmost concern to me is always knowing and being able to communicate where we are in the story of the music. It’s up to me as the performer to figure out the architecture—where it’s coming from and where it’s going, and how the experiences along the path of the music have informed the story, so I can bring those emotions and expression to the music, and hopefully tell the story convincingly.

Q: Of course we’re talking about French music here, thus my mind wandered towards the playing of French violinists I’ve heard over the years. Have you listened to French violinists play any of this repertoire, and if so were there any specific stylistic traits that you wanted to bring out in your own performances?

A: Some French musicians I admire are Arthur Grumiaux, Pascal Devoyan, Philippe Graffin, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. I enjoy their work very much, and perhaps they have influenced my feelings about French sound. I don’t think they influenced my interpretations, but very probably my ideas about sound in French music.

Q: Can you tell us about your work with Trio Solisti? I noticed two CDs by them, Café Music and the album of Dvořák’s music. Do they restrict themselves to romantic and modern works, or have they played any 18th-century pieces—and, if so, do they modify their performance style to include historically informed practices?

A: Trio Solisti does perform works by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. And we do vary our sound to fit what we think of as a more classical approach—that is less vibrato in general, and definitely not a big juicy romantic-style vibrato or sound. And we don’t play our forte or fortissimo dynamics as big as we would in later repertoire. With Beethoven, of course there are many considerations: variety of articulation, the strong characters, and the key ingredient, the architecture. I find it very important to study how pianists play Beethoven—I love Artur Schnabel and Richard Goode. It is all applicable to the violin and to string instruments.

Q: I was also quite impressed to learn that Trio Solisti was the founding member of the Telluride, Colorado, MusicFest. How did that come about, and what kind of programs have they presented there?

A: My husband [Josh Aronson—he’s a documentary filmmaker and amateur pianist] and I founded Telluride MusicFest 10 years ago. It’s a small annual chamber music festival, and since I was in the trio, it was natural for Trio Solisti to be the core resident ensemble of the festival. We so enjoy having guest artists to expand the repertoire. We present programs every summer with a different overarching theme such as “From Russia with Love,” “Vienna to Budapest,” “Celebrating Glass and Mendelssohn” (Philip Glass was our composer-in-residence one year). Every year is different, and as the artistic director of the festival, part of what I do is to search for overlooked or neglected gems by great composers that are genuine masterpieces. I have found many really terrific works, and hope to record some of them!

Q: I looked over your repertoire, and was struck by the fact that Paul Moravec composed his Violin Concerto for you! I also noticed that you have the Bartók concertos in your repertoire. But I was wondering if there were other Eastern European composers whose music might intrigue you, for instance Enescu who made a particular specialty of violin pieces?

A: Paul Moravec and I have been friends for many years, and he’s written about 15 works for me. He’s not only one of my best friends but I think he’s one of the best composers around! Concerning Bartók, both my parents are from Hungary and I speak Hungarian. So naturally I have a special feeling for Eastern European music. My father was a Bartók scholar and I’ve performed everything Bartók ever wrote for the violin, from solo to chamber music. A dream would be to record all the violin repertory of Bartók one day. I’ve performed Enescu’s Third Sonata, and want to explore much more of his music. All of this Eastern European music has a bittersweet quality that touches me.

Q: Are there any other musical projects you’d like to tell us about? I’d just love it, for instance, if you had a Tribute to Joe, Steph, Ray & Jean CD in the works!

A: That sounds like a wonderful idea for a Tribute album and I’d love to do it! I’m very much looking forward to recording Paul Moravec’s violin concerto this spring. Future recording projects on my short list are Gypsy Violin (music of Sarasate, Hubay, Enescu, Brahms), Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Beethoven and Brahms Sonatas, and of course more recordings with Trio Solisti–Beethoven, Chausson, and Saint-Saëns trios, and works we have recently premiered by Kevin Puts and Lowell Liebermann. I’m always involved with new music and I know more will be on the horizon. This is probably enough to keep my busy for a short while!

DEBUSSY Beau soir (arr. Heifetz). Violin Sonata in g. FRANCK Violin Sonata in A. SAINT-SAËNS Violin Sonata No. 1 in d Maria Bachmann (vn); Adam Neiman (pn) BRIDGE 9394 (68:49)

Violinist Maria Bachmann presents here three of the most famous French violin sonatas along with Jascha Heifetz’s transcription of one of Debussy’s most popular chansons. Robert Maxham raved about her recital disc on Endeavor 1020, The Red Violin, in Fanfare 31:2 (and, in fact, has given good reviews to a number of her discs), and her recording of sonatas by George Rochberg and Beethoven (the “Kreutzer”) on Connoisseur Society 4178, made way back in 1991, was given qualified praise by David K. Nelson in Fanfare 14:4. An indication of how far Bachmann has come in those intervening 16 years may be gleaned from the fact that Nelson described her tone as “sturdy rather than pretty,” while Maxham who also interviewed Bachmann in 30:6, described her tone as of 2007 as firing her recital “with a white-heat intensity that could melt asbestos.” I personally found her tone exceptionally beautiful in places, but nowhere more so than in the Heifetz transcription of Beau soir. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that as soon as she began playing this, what popped into my mind immediately was the exquisite if somewhat eerie vocal quality of Clara Rockmore’s theramin, although I don’t think Rockmore ever recorded this piece. Bachmann achieves exactly the same kind of echt- vocal phrasing and expression that Rockmore did in pieces like Rachmaninoff’s “O cease thy singing, maiden fair,” so close to that of a soprano that one is almost stunned to realize that there are no words and that the performer is playing an instrument, not singing.

Much of the same quality can also be heard in the very opening of the Franck Sonata, yet as the music progresses one hears—as Maxham so aptly put it—an intensity that could melt asbestos. Bachmann uses not only constant vibrato in her playing but a slightly wider vibrato than one is used to hearing nowadays…it’s a sound that one associates with such French musicians of the past as Grumiaux or Neveu. Throughout the Franck sonata, in fact, one is also acutely aware of the splendid contribution of pianist Neiman, whose playing follows Bachmann into every nook and crevice of the score with extraordinary sensitivity and alertness.

The duo carries the same combination of suavity and intensity into their perusals of the Debussy and Saint-Saëns sonatas, indeed making so much of this music that after a while one is only conscious of the sound of the music, and not necessarily the intervention of the performers, which to my mind is the way it should be. The ebb and flow of the music is expertly, I would even say perfectly, judged by the two artists—note, for instance, the exceptionally well-defined “rocking rhythm” in the opening movement of the Saint-Saëns, which Bachmann leads perfectly into the following passages, and which imparts an acute attention to detail within the longer lines of the complete movement as it unfolds. This seems to be typical of her music-making, an expression as much of delight in the structure of the work as much as in its emotional content.

One may also hear how far she has developed her tone from its days of “sturdiness” to its present richer, at times more seductive, quality in the Adagio of the last-named sonata. There is a certain coolness about this music; it is relaxing but in an arresting manner, not exactly seductive, yet Bachmann manages to entice the listener via subtle inflections while maintaining the proper emotive balance. She makes of the last movement an exciting moto perpetuo that absolutely soars, so magically intense it is even in the soft passages. Quite simply, this is an outstanding disc, and one that will captivate you. Lynn René Bayley

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 23 January 2013 )
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