Rachel Barton : Tying Together Concertos by Joachim and Brahms, the 1742 “Soldat” del Gesu, and Her Own Cadenza
by Robert Maxham
While violinist Rachel Barton may not be a musicologist, each of her recording projects (such as concertos by Black composers on Cedille CDR 90000 035, 21:1 ; Handel sonatas on modern violin with Baroque bow, Cedille CDR 90000 035, 21:5; and the devil's own repertoire, Cedille CDR 90000 041,23:3) has displayed a scholarly penchant for building programs of interest for more than the beauty of her playing. ("I try to do things that aren't just for my own sake—for me, a very empty kind of goal.") Her new set, exploring the interconnections between concertos by Joachim (the "Hungarian," op. 11) and Brahms, offers a similarly stimulating mix of élan and reflection. That the "Hungarian" Concerto's very title weaves a sort of magic spell is suggested by an ad I used to see in Musical America for a violinist who offered to play at least part of it in pops concerts. Neither the work itself nor its composer seems to fit into such a setting. "To people not familiar with Joachim's musical philosophy and aesthetics and his attitude toward composing and performing, the title might conjure up some kind of trivial fantasy on Hungarian themes such as another composer of the time might have written. When I first heard of the piece, that's exactly what I thought it would be. But Joachim elevated the style to a high level of seriousness and sophistication." How did she first become aware of the concerto? "References pop up in books and listings. I'm always looking for unusual repertoire (I'm insatiable in trying to find more and more music. In fact, my sheet music collection is currently overtaking my apartment and I'm looking for a bigger place.) But I was particularly intrigued by the concerto because of its connection to my professors (Barton studied in Berlin with Werner Scholz, who traces his violinistic pedigree through Gustav Havemann to Joachim). When I had an opportunity to make a recording with the Chicago Symphony, the Brahms was my number one first choice. It was a concerto I felt strongly about, and I believed I had something personal to say about it. Of course, I try to find something unique and personal to say about every piece I play; but I really felt that my interpretation of the Brahms concerto would add something to the dozens and dozens already recorded. At the same time, I wanted to see what I could pair with the Brahms to make it even more interesting for the listening public-a true connection between the concertos on the disc. Joachim's hit us all at the same time as a perfect candidate. And the more 1 researched the two pieces and explored them through practicing, the more convinced I became that we'd made the right decision."
The "right decision," in this case, brought Rachel Barton into direct confrontation with a piece that's been dubbed the most difficult of all violin concertos. However difficult it may be, others seem more ostentatiously challenging-or more brilliant as showpieces. What specific technical difficulties does the concerto pose? "There's not a double-stopped harmonic to be found, no left-hand pizzicato, very few tenths or any of the pyrotechnical tricks that we usually rely on to define how hard a piece is. Joachim didn't believe in empty display. In fact, he even criticized Wilhelm's arrangement of Bach's Orchestral Suite movement (Air on the G String) as a vapid attempt to go back to the circus tricks of Paganini—putting it all on the G string for no good reason other than to say you did it. But Joachim's concerto requires incredible stamina. I've played Paganini's 24 Caprices complete in one recital; also Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas. But I found preparing for both of those undertakings less draining and less challenging than performing and recording the Joachim concerto. Paganini has all those tricks, but they're embedded in a very light, Italian bel canto style; they don't require your bow arm to produce such sustained tone. But Joachim's use of the bow is also facile—you have to be accurate with so many string crosses and different kinds of chording.
That's what really struck me about the Ernst Étude (Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, the heir to Paganini's mantle as preeminent virtuoso, dedicated the third of his Polyphonic Études to Joachim; and it captures some of the strenuousness of it's dedicatee's style). The massive chords are very much what I found in the Joachim concerto. Then, there are just so many stretches that your left hand almost has to contort to reach the notes in those massive chords. And because they're in a musical context, you not only have to stretch your hand for them, but you also have to play very melodically, vibrate on those notes, and sustain them with the bow. Your hand just aches." Is Barton's hand a small one? My fingers are short. A mold was made of Maud Powell's hand for the World's Columbian Exposition (the Powell Society generously gave me a plaster-cast replica); her fingers are a third again as long as mine. (It would be interesting to have a violin museum with everybody's hand, the way they do in the basketball museum.) But, actually, reaching things has more to do with sideways movement. I have a friend, an amateur violinist, whose fingers are twice as long as mine. He can reach things I can't possibly on piano, but when he takes up the violin, he can't reach nearly as large an interval as I can, because he can't go sideways as far. Anyway, it was like training for the marathon to get my strength up to get through the Joachim concerto, to prepare for the sessions by getting to the point where I could get through it over and over and over. I was in really good shape after that."
The concerto's sheer length may be another factor inhibiting violinists from including it in their repertoire. "The first movement alone is longer than the entire Bruch G-Minor Concerto. For the standard concert order of overture, concerto, intermission, and symphony, this one's just too long. And until people realize its true musical value, it's not going to become a 'second-half’ concerto—a stand-alone piece (as people feel comfortable making the Beethoven concerto or the Shostakovich). I was able to get a couple of wonderful doctoral dissertations through the Newberry Library here in Chicago, one of which is called Joseph Joachim 's Hungarian Concerto in D Minor, Opus 11, and the other, The Brahms, Schumann, and Joachim Violin Concertos: An Analysis of Relationships. I don't think Joachim was trying to achieve length as a mark of distinction. From what I've read, in fact, he tried to make the concerto shorter, but every attempted revision only made it longer. So he left it the way it was."
I've heard that when a student once mentioned to Auer that Joachim's concerto was a "charming" work, the old Master pounded on the piano and insisted that the piece was one of "God's Concertos." "That's so colorful. I love the thought of him banging on the piano and that artistic temperament, which you don't see as often these days. There used to tie many more of those dramatic stage personalities. There's a wonderful story in the Ysaÿe biography published by Paganini. Ysaÿe's students had come to see him at a concert; and when he got to a certain melodramatic part, he rolled his eyes back and even made a couple of tears roll down his jowls. Afterwards he told his students to be sure not to do any of those things. Well, that's too far in one direction, but what we do today is too far in the other. When it's an affectation, it becomes inauthentic and cheesy. Audiences might go for such ridiculous showmanship on a surface level, but it detracts from true artistry. On the other hand, performers these days are trying so hard to be respectful of the great classical composers that they're almost removing themselves from the music. I think that's going too far, too. You have to let yourself be part of it and let your personality blend with the composer's intentions, or else, what's the audience going to grab on to? People still appreciate these revered works, but they won't feel them in the most human way if you aren't communicating what is authentically you. Performers should be uninhibited about expressing everything that's inside themselves, but shouldn't look for fake ways to augment it. A friend of mine who was turning pages for a famous pianist told me a great story. At a certain point, the music was marked, 'Look up.' He assumed that was a reminder to make sure that the ensemble was good with the conductor. But she didn't do anything at that place during any of the rehearsals. In the concert, when she got there, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes and her face became very angelic. So that's what 'look up' meant. And I've even heard of some famous violin teachers telling their students that they should move around so that the audience will think they're more 'into' the piece.
These days you often get performers who move around a great deal; but when you close your eyes, you don't hear a lot of expression. Heifetz played with a tremendous amount of expression, but he stood as still as a statue." So did Milstein. "The video, The Art of the Violin, showed that there's no one right way to play, but that the older violinists, without being eccentric (some today try to be different by doing things that are different, even if it's not coming from inside them), were very closely in touch with who they were as artists. But it didn't take away from their being true to Mozart and Brahms. These days there's lots of musicological research (I'm a total research geek, myself), but those artists weren't inhibited by the traditions of the last generations-they weren't hidebound. We need to be a little less inhibited by the tradition of, say, how Oistrakh interpreted things." But will that be possible, given the great number, and now the permanence, of all the recordings that have been made?
"I hope that hearing the Brahms in the context of the Joachim, which was, of course, the context in which he composed it, will open people's eyes to the Brahms, which is an extraordinary thing to say about such a warhorse. My interpretation deepened and expanded as I was practicing them simultaneously. While parallels can be drawn between certain triple-stops, there's no one passage that actually screams out as being a copy. The influences occur more at the macro level: I've always considered the Brahms a massive, serious concerto, concerned with the hugeness of creation, with rising above the limits of just being mortal. The Joachim concerto is much in that direction, too. It's larger than life. Playing that piece and then going to the Brahms made me feel anew the sense of expansiveness and breadth in the Brahms concerto."
In representing that expansiveness, Barton and Cedille's engineers have placed, though not hidden, the violin well within the symphonic web. "It was very eye-opening, not being a total audiophile myself—I listen to music more for interpretation than I do for recorded sound. But (after working to finalize the sound mix of this recording) I was listening to some recordings to prepare my part for a chamber music concert. I could hear the qualities of the recordings, and I found the bad ones really irritating to listen to. I thought that two weeks ago I wouldn't even have noticed it. I hope my ears will go back to their happy naïveté a couple of weeks from now. Jim (Ginsburg) grabbed out a lot of CDs, mostly modern—recordings that were made for compact disc—and I brought over some of mine. We listened to 10 or 12 different artists in a row. We heard virtually the same thing happening in each of their Brahms concertos: a huge, loud sound during the tutti, but when the violinist came in, it's as though someone turned the knob way down on the orchestra. If that's what you're used to, you don't think twice about it; but when you start to listen for that, you realize how fake it is. We decided we wanted something truer to life, closer to what you'd hear in the concert hall. Obviously, they'd play softer when the soloist comes in, but they wouldn't play inhumanly softly. We worked back and forth along the continuum until we finally found what we felt convinced was a happy balance between always being able to hear the orchestra and being able to distinguish the solo line. After all, in this particular repertoire, the orchestra is not the accompaniment. And you've got the Chicago Symphony, with their incredible principal woodwinds and wonderful string sound. Why would you want to pay good money for a recording of the Chicago Symphony and then not be able to hear them? We're excited about presenting this alternative sound mix (I'd call it more authentic, but that's becoming subjective) on this repertoire." The recording includes, as a sort of "bonus track," but far more than a mere extra, Barton's own cadenza for the Brahms concerto. "People keep telling me that I should really keep trying my hand at composing; but I'm intimidated by that. I feel as though whatever I might do would be a pale imitation of good composers. I don't have any great original melodies in me. But I do like to compose derivative things: I write a lot of encores, and my introductions to themes and variations will of course contain original material. As long as somebody gives me a melody, I feel I can do something with it. I started the violin at age three; and by five, I could handle the instrument well enough that 1 would innocently start making up my own songs. Then, when I switched to a more sophisticated teacher and my regimen became more intense, that fell by the wayside. Trying to return to it as an adult, with such inhibitions, I'm pleased that I've got to the point of making extemporaneous Baroque ornamentation in the moment of performance (I own a beautiful 1770 Nicola Gagliano violin that's never been modernized). If I'd just kept doing it from the time I was a kid, I'd still be doing it—and it would be natural. Back in history, every performer was a composer.
If you compose yourself, you bring more depth to your interpretations when you approach someone else's music, because you understand the processes and you see things in the other person's composition that you can only understand if you've also made the same journey. So cadenzas aren't just a fun way to express your thoughts about a concerto." But did writing a cadenza to the Brahms concerto result in any special insight into its thematic development? "I would have to say that in this case, it didn't. That's because I'd been studying the Brahms so intensely. Usually when I play a concerto, I check a couple of analyses out from the library to make sure I don't have anything wrong. But in preparing for the CD, I found every article I could lay my hands on about the Brahms; and I ended up reading not one or two, but over 14 different analyses. I had analyzed that piece absolutely to death, so when I wrote the cadenza, it was a quicker process. With lesser-known works, I have to go it on my own. In all of those, it's through the cadenza process that I get deeper into the movement. But I always do feel that when I compose a cadenza, it's organically connected with my interpretation—in fact, if I should ever significantly change my interpretation, I'd have to change my cadenza, because that cadenza would no longer flow out of the way I'm playing the main material of the movement. That's why we struggled with this album. Normally, if I were to record a concerto, I'd record my own cadenza to it. But with the Brahms-Joachim concept, how could we leave off Joachim? My interpretation of the Brahms concerto is influenced by what I know about Joachim's performance style, both through what I've read and through the traditions passed down through my professor—as well as through familiarity with Joachim's compositions. I didn't attempt to play the Brahms concerto exactly as Joachim would have played it, because I'm not Joachim, and that would be inauthentic. You can't really recreate someone else's interpretation, because you can't recreate being them. I played the notes he wrote the way I'd play them. But because Brahms is actually thought to have had a hand in Joachim's cadenza, it's more integrated than in other concertos in which the violinists just wrote the cadenzas by themselves. It was such a collaborative process. I had to play the Joachim cadenza so that the audience could fully explore that relationship; but I felt that I couldn't do without my cadenza, so they're both there."
When was the decision made to put the second cadenza on the recording? "Well, we knew it was going to get out in the world somehow, and we were going back and forth. Ricci had those albums in which you could insert the cadenza you wanted to hear, but each cadenza was a track. So as your CD player jumped back from the cadenza to the track that was at the end of the first movement, you'd get a tiny hole. Jim Ginsburg had an ingenious solution, which was to play the end of the movement twice. Jim and I are on the same wavelength—compulsively perfectionistic." That's just one of the many reasons why Barton is fortunate to have established an artistic partnership with Cedille records. "Cedille is unique, in that it's organized as a not-for-profit foundation. That's how this recording was able to be made: We received a very generous grant from a charitable foundation to the Chicago Classical Recording Foundation."
For the recording, Barton borrowed a 1742 Guarneri del Gesù that was once the principal instrument of violinist Marie Soldat, who must have played it for Brahms himself. ''It belongs to an anonymous patron. It was so inspiring, not just because I was hearing the sound that Brahms particularly liked when I was playing his piece, but also playing the instrument that was the concert instrument of one of the rare 19th-century women violinists—an instrument that has a strong female connection yet is in no way a feminine instrument. The Strad, a hundred years ago, commented that this violin suited Marie Soldat's virile style very admirably. You asked whether she had recorded the piece now available on CD (from about 1920—the Adagio from Spohr's 9th Concerto) on that violin. I would assume that she did. It was her instrument for the rest of her life. I sat down and listened to that movement very carefully with my luthier one day. The recording quality was so different back then, and we couldn't tell for sure whether it was the same violin." A photo of Barton holding the violin graces the cover of the CD. "I brought it along to the photo shoot, but I told the stylist to stay far away with the hair spray."
What does the future hold for the "Hungarian" Concerto? "I'm very, very hopeful that with the publicity we're going to try to generate for this album, and with the loving care that everybody put into the interpretation—the record company, Maestro Kalmar (it was Jim Ginsburg who made that match), and the orchestra—we came up with something that will attract other violinists as well as the public. Ever since I've learned it, I've been trying to get conductors to book it, and I'd love to perform it—even more, I'd love to perform it often. But it's hard enough to get people to program off-the-beaten-track concertos they're already familiar with. I always ask people to program the Berg, and every once in a while, I get a bite. Most of the time, I get asked to play Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn. That's just the way of the world. But I'm optimistic that once I can hand them my recording, I’ll get some bites."