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With Riveting Artistry

September 9, 2008

It was a hot and sticky night, and the gut strings weren't staying where they were supposed to. "With luck, there'll be more music than tuning on this concert," quipped violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock after an opening couple of minutes' struggle with her instrument's pegbox.
Near the beginning of Blumenstock's recital Saturday night at Berkeley's Trinity Chapel, under the auspices of Trinity Chamber Concerts, it looked almost as though the tuning would get the upper hand. The first two works on the program were broken by violin-tuning episodes, and, not far into the program, harpsichordist Janine Johnson had to adjust a few strings on her lovely Frank Hubbard instrument, as well. But it was not long before the instruments — and the players — settled into an uneasy accommodation with the weather.

Four of Bach's six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord made up the bulk of the program. It's been more than 15 years since Blumenstock recorded that cycle (plus a couple of the sonatas with continuo) with John Butt for Harmonia Mundi. (The recording flits in and out of print as HM periodically repackages it, but it can be heard online here.) Not having heard her play these works since, I was curious to see what would change, what stay the same.

Saturday's violinist was recognizably Blumenstock — lithe of bow, zingy of articulation, crisp of trills, dauntless and dashing in passagework. But since the early '90s she's grown less severe, indulging in more legato, phrasing more generously and more seductively. The warmth she brought to the slow movements, especially the opening movement of the A-Major Sonata (BWV 1015) and the beguiling third movement of the E-Major (BWV 1016), was a pleasure.

There was plenty of fire when she was so inclined. (The fast movements of the A-Major come to mind, the long arpeggiated passage of the second movement humorously coinciding Saturday with the wail of a passing siren.) But more often she valued variety and expressivity of articulation over speed and brilliance. The second movement of the E-Major Sonata, for example, ambled amiably instead of flashing by. I think some violinists are a little embarrassed by the happy-go-lucky cheerfulness of the theme — not, shall we say, one of Bach's most profound — and rush through it in consequence. Not she.

To be sure, some awkward moments occurred. The weather can't have helped Blumenstock's intonation, which wasn't quite at its sterling best. More damaging were the occasional moments of miscoordination with Johnson's harpsichord, and a few places where Blumenstock's usually fine sense of harmonic direction seemed to falter. The slow movement of the F-Minor Sonata (BWV 1018) — a thing without a theme, only a texture (harpsichord arpeggios, violin double-stops) and a strong succession of harmonies — seemed occasionally lost. And in a number of places the two players ought to have arrived simultaneously, but didn't.
Perfect Concord
That said, when the two were really feeling in sync, the music-making was breathtaking. The ends of the first two movements of the A-Major Sonata — the first relaxing to a close in perfect concord, the second evaporating impishly into thin air — were in their different ways delightful. Best of all, perhaps, was the third movement of the B-Minor Sonata (BWV 1014), played with a hesitant and yet serene poise that touched the heart.

Interspersed among the sonatas were three quite different works all titled "Fantasia." Blumenstock got the first of these: the seventh of Telemann's 12 Fantasias for solo violin (TWV 40:20). Like its siblings, it's essentially a tiny four-movement sonata, the odd-numbered movements slow and the even-numbered fast like the Bach sonatas on this recital, but at something like half the length. Blumenstock was gentle and expansive in the slow movements, merry to the point of giddiness in the fast ones. The final Presto, with its comically wide leaps and sudden bursts of eighth notes, obviously struck some vein of humor in her; every time another run of eighths appeared, she rushed at it like a horse trying to clear a hedge.

Johnson, for her part, provided a Bach Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 904. This is a piece I'd never heard before, and a remarkable one. There's a rondo-structured, heavily contrapuntal first section, followed by a four-voice, three-subject fugue in which (as in the more gobsmacking fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier) a kitchen sink's worth of virtuoso contrapuntal tricks are thrown at you with such art that you might well miss them if you were listening casually.

Johnson's detailed program notes were helpful here, and so was her clear, unfussy, but subtly flexible performance, which delineated the structure clearly without seeming, so to speak, to rub your ears in it. (A further word about those notes: They were truly models of their kind — full of information, and I dare say too technical and "musicological" for some, but still wearing their scholarship lightly, and deftly explaining a few of the more arcane terms without drawing attention to the gloss. It's not everyone who can do that. Indeed, to judge by the program notes I generally encounter, it's hardly anyone who can do that. Kudos.)
Sunny, Bluesy Fantasia
The program's third fantasia, though, was the standout. It was Johnson's own Fantasia and Fugue, written for Blumenstock a decade ago, and originally meant for violin and fortepiano. (Johnson: "Music written for fortepiano seems to transfer well to the harpsichord, and this is no exception." I should say this work transfers exceptionally well, so much so that I have a hard time imagining it with fortepiano.)

The idiom is a little hard to describe. Johnson mentions "Eastern European, jazz, and Baroque influences," which is all true, but not exhaustive. The opening, sweet and serene, but with some unexpected harmonic twists, sounds rather like Milhaud in his most sunnily pastoral vein. Later on in the first section some bluesy tinges turn up, and there's a lot of scope for zesty, "Blumenstocky" bowing of which you may be sure the dedicatee made maximum use.

The Fugue subject is bumptiously syncopated and contains a few strategically placed gaps, allowing later on for all sorts of zany hocketing (slotting a second voice into the rests in the first). The ending is a triumphant scramble upward, ending with a pizzicato high E from the violin. Terrific fun, this piece. I didn't know Johnson was a composer before hearing this concert, and now I'm curious to learn what else she's written.

The duo consented to one encore after the A-Major Bach Sonata that ended the formal program. Blumenstock confessed that for her, "encore" does mean literally "again" — "so this," she said, "is an 'again.'" It was the third movement of the B-Minor Sonata, as transparent and yet human as it had been the first time.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.