in: Reviews

August 2, 2010

Big, Bold Solo Violin Battles Elements and Wins

by

Lara St. John is a powerhouse. Tall and imposing, she strides out onto a stage — as she did in her debut at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock on Sunday afternoon, August 1 — and immediately takes command. She powers her way through musical obstacles as though they were wild horses to tame. Sometimes she may leave a few splinters behind her, but in most respects her solo recital was a great success, much appreciated by a roaring audience.

Unaccompanied Bach was the main content of the concert: Partita No. 1 in B minor, and Sonata No. 3 in C Major. St. John’s Bach, similar to what you hear in her recordings for her own label, Ancalagon, is big and bold. She is not an authentic Baroque stylist. She takes repeats but plays them literally, without the embellishments a player in Bach’s time would have found mandatory. The very opening Allemanda of the First Partita was so overtly emotional that it nearly burst the bounds of the music. For me, at least, this approach did work, although sometimes just barely. The speed and accuracy of the Double of the Corrente in this work were just plain dazzling. The strong rhythmic emphasis in the concluding Tempo di Borea kept it from sounding rushed, despite a very fast tempo.

I had a few more problems with the Sonata. The Adagio was romanticized a bit beyond the bounds of what I like to hear. The Fugue was very powerfully played with the clarity of voices maintained impressively. But the way St. John slowed down at cadences was definitely excessive. Interrupting the rhythmic flow of a Bach fugue like this is like interrupting sex to make a phone call. Overall, though, St. John’s Bach is strong stuff, whether you like it or not. And most of the time I do like it.

To fill out her program, St. John presented two world premieres of unaccompanied violin works by friends of hers, both of them present. Martin Kennedy, sometimes her piano collaborator, contributed Variations on Being Alone. The weather added a lot of drama to this piece, first with thunder and heavy rain, and then with a brief power blackout which left the violinist playing from a new score in near-darkness for a couple of minutes. On first hearing this music struck me as a meandering exercise in atonal lyricism, but a couple more hearings might help clarify the structure. Matt Van Brink’s Zephyr, a much briefer work, sounded very similar in style to the Ysaÿe work that had preceded it. It provided a good workout for the violinist but I’d have to hear it again (preferably without heavy rain) to get a grip on the content.

But ah, that Ysaÿe! The Sonata in D minor, Op. 27, No. 3, “Ballade,” has been a favorite of violinists like Oistrakh and Ricci. I can’t say I’ve ever heard it played with more drama and power than St. John provided. It was a thriller! I wonder if she plays any of Ysaÿe’s other works; if she does, I’d love to hear them.

Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

1 Comment

  1. “Interrupting the rhythmic flow of a Bach fugue like this is like interrupting sex to make a phone call.”

    That needed repeating.

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — August 3, 2010 at 10:09 am

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