To attend a recital by Ilya Kaler is to take a trip back in time to a golden age of violin playing about which older musicians nostalgically wax poetic and to which younger ones jealously compare their contemporary lots. The kings and queens of this era loom large in memories and record collections—Jascha Heifetz, Joseph Szigeti, Henryk Szeryng, Mischa Elman, Fritz Kreisler. However, during the 1980s and ‘90s it seemed that the traditions from which these great players emerged receded as new careers became defined by flawless virtuosity. Soloists were expected to reproduce the canon like human record players, night after night, on tours that shipped them from hall to hall with little time to explore the world from which their interpretations might naturally arise. Thankfully, it appears that this monolithic model is crumbling. Searching, intellectual players like Christian Tetzlaff bring contemporary ideas and fresh sounds to canonic works (along with original cadenzas rather than the classic, yet ossified, ones used by soloists for years). Fearless and instinctive soloists like Patricia Kopatchinskaja emphasize the unhinged rustic elements of works like the Bartok concerti that were polished and hidden by years of technically flawless reproduction. But for Ilya Kaler it’s as though this period of violinistic stagnation never occurred. His style, which draws on the strength and purity of the mid-20th-century Russians like David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan as well as the sweetness and romance of players like Arthur Grumiaux and Zino Francescatti, is markedly nostalgic.
It’s no surprise that after this recital, as well as following his previous String Masters Series recital and two recent appearances with the Boston Philharmonic, one heard audience members and orchestra members alike remark how people just don’t play like that anymore. But with the burgeoning diversity of violin styles, Kaler’s also sounds remarkably contemporary, taking its place in a broadening array approaches.
Kaler’s rich, grand manner sound was on full display on Sunday, Seully Hall for his second appearance in Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s String Masters Series. Until shortly before the concert began, the crowd seemed sparse, but then, with only minutes to spare before the scheduled start time, violinists from all over town swarmed into the hall, and Kaler played to a packed house. His tuxedoed stage presence and deference to his partner matched his sound—attractively old-fashioned and impeccably classy.
Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, drawn from the composer’s ballet Pulcinella and arranged by his closest violinist collaborator, Samuel Dushkin is classic recital piece from exactly the repertoire that these “golden era” violinists drew their material. Kaler and pianist Janice Weber struggled occasionally with ensemble, but despite these slight miscues this performance bristled with character, notably with a thick, strutting rhythm that sat on the back end of the beat, reflecting the eponymous, buffoonish commedia dell’arte character. Kaler’s sticky articulation lent weight to even the fastest spiccato passages, adding to the grounded, heavy nature of these wonderful character studies.
Hindemith’s Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 11, No. 1 highlighted another of Kaler’s career projects—advocating for marginalizing repertoire. (He’s had especially successful collaborations with the conductor Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in works by Karlowicz and Szymanowski.) Kaler is particularly drawn to twentieth century works that don’t necessarily fall far outside the canon, but rather off the bottom of most repertoire lists. So few audience members knew the Hindemith, that some confusion ensued (even among this gaggle of fellow violinists) about which movement was which and when the piece ended. Regardless, Kaler and Weber made a convincing case. A softer warmer sound than the Prokofiev imbued the lyrical moments of this beautiful piece with an inner glow, a sound that carved out an area of introversive quiet reflection, especially toward the end of the work. Hindemith conceived the piece as part of a set of six (looking back, with an anti-Romantic eye, to similar sets of six by Haydn and Bach), and began work on it in 1918 at the age of 23 while still on the Western Front in World War I. Even this early work contains both beautiful moments of late romantic introversion and elements of Hindemith’s inchoate modernism. Another violinist inspired by the sort of “objective school” of mid-20th-century violin playing, Frank Peter Zimmermann, recently released a brilliant recording of Hindemith’s complete works for violin. I would love to hear Kaler’s interpretations of this same repertoire on disc.
A real surprise followed Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Suite as arranged by Heifetz. Beyond his requisite refined style and sweet sound, Kaler displayed a deeper connection to this music than I expected. He and Weber offered a passionate and big reading with wonderful details of phrasing decked with plenty of slides and generous rubato. In his arrangement, Heifetz retained the flavor of the full orchestra’s dramatic swells, and Kaler and Weber brought these out with outsized tone and drama.
After intermission, Andrew Mark, the artistic director of the String Masters Series, joined Kaler and Weber for a big-boned account of the Dvořák Trio in F Minor, op. 65. Ensemble issues dissolved into the turbulence and bluster of this warhorse. Andrew Mark contributed a fine solo to begin the slow movement.
Those that missed this show forfeited a rare opportunity to experience a grand tradition not only alive and well, but also interacting with contemporary styles and approaches. Ilya Kaler masters the past by enriching it with the breath of the present.
Matthew Heck is a musicology doctoral student at Brandeis.