Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bach Chaconne for Two Violins

photo by Sarah Talvi
While reading Joseph Szigeti's "On The Violin" an invaluable resource for serious violinists, I became intrigued by the many transcriptions of Johann Sebastian Bach's towering masterpiece, the Chaconne from Partita in D Minor, which are listed and analyzed in Szigeti's book, including a string quartet version by Luigi Schinina. I had my heart set on finding this particular quartet transcription, as I could imagine it might prove helpful to students struggling with the inherent demands of the unaccompanied Chaconne. But alas, while searching for Schinina, Ilkka and I discovered a two violin edition by Friedrich Hermann instead.

After printing out the score, we played through together, just out of curiosity, and to our delight found the Hermann version most satisfying. Suddenly, four part chords that are often forced or butchered by many violinists of today's era could be rendered with ease and elegance; the underlying harmonies are supported by the second violin with just the right touch of texture, and embellished with flourishes that, I believe, might have pleased old Bach himself. If nothing else, this two violin version of the Bach Chaconne by Hermann might be a godsend for the perplexed teacher, offering a strategy for pacing, polyphony and polish. I nudged my husband to quickly set up the recording equipment, as I know with oncoming holidays, one can put things off indefinitely. I also enlisted the aid of our youngest daughter Sarah as photographer.

It may be helpful to remember that Bach's music fell into relative obscurity after his death. It was Felix Mendelssohn who made Bach's works accessible to the wider public, perhaps rescuing him from oblivion; the general consensus at that time was that Johann Sebastian Bach was nothing more than a musical "mathematician". Mendelssohn published a piano accompaniment to the Chaconne in London and Hamburg in 1847, which was followed a few years later with the accompaniments for all six of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Robert Schumann. I eagerly await the experience of studying these!

The venerable concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, Ferdinand David, immortalized for his premiere of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, introduced the first edited publication of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. However, David was known to have remarked that "he would not be moved by any fee whatsoever to step onto a stage with a naked violin," so terrifying was the thought of performing these works alone. Joseph Joachim was the first daring soul to gather the courage to perform the works without accompaniment, and always did so, which set the standard for our modern day.

Friedrich Hermann, the editor of this two violin version of the Chaconne, was himself a student of Ferdinand David at the Leipzig Conservatory. He also studied composition with Moritz Hauptmann and Felix Mendelssohn.

Ilkka and I dedicate this home production to the memory of Veikko Talvi, who passed away at the age of 100 on October 9, 2011. My dear father-in-law, whose loving spirit will forever remain with us, treasured every note that we played. And then some.

Friday, November 18, 2011

With Head to the Music Bent: A Musician's Story

Randolph Hokanson  (photo by MKT)
Confession. For many years after relinquishing my identity as a "concertmaster" or first chair player, I took cover whenever I spotted someone from my glorious past. It might have happened anywhere; the grocery store, the library, neighborhood street; simply put, I didn't want to be confronted or pitied, so I'd hide. A few months ago, my youngest daughter and husband witnessed my unusual behavior as I glimpsed, out of the corner of my eye, at the grocery store parking lot, my dear friend and former musical collaborator, pianist Randolph Hokanson, now 96 years old. I thought my daughter might cry, as she gleaned that a precious moment was about to be lost; one that might never be recovered if I stubbornly sat in the car. And while she begged me to reconsider, to leave the car, and greet the master musician, I refused. But I recalled with great emotion, the transformational experience of having performed all ten of the Beethoven Piano and Violin Sonatas with Mr. Hokanson. We had offered an entire Beethoven cycle over the course of three evenings at Seattle's Sherman Clay, back in 2005. I returned home bereft of not only a hug from my patient friend and colleague, but what may have been a meaningful conversation.

As good fortune would have it, I learned a few days later that Mr. Hokanson had just completed and published his memoir: With Head to the Music Bent; A Musician's Story. Instantly I knew that I must get a hold of this book from the author's own hands, and journey with Mr. Hokanson through his years of study with Harold Samuel (one of the first pianists of the twentieth century to focus on the works of Johann Sebastian Bach), English composer Howard Ferguson, Dame Myra Hess, Carl Friedberg (who during his teens studied regularly with Clara Schumann and enjoyed a friendship with Johannes Brahms), and Wilhelm Kempff. I placed a call to the master, and after an invitation for coffee and cake in his studio, I held a beautifully inscribed copy of his memoir.

Mr. Hokanson's gentle and thoughtful narrative rings with as much clarity and insight as his beautiful piano playing. This memoir, with candor and humility, pays hommage to those noble beings who profoundly influenced and shaped his own artistry. In "With Head to the Music Bent," the reader discovers the secrets to contemplative study or what Myra Hess called "complete immersion"; the book guides the reader through the consciousness of sound: "I want to feel that my arm is in the bow, my fingers at the end of it, in direct contact with the strings of the piano."

In the late 40's, after an extensive contract with Columbia Artists which led to solo engagements under Sir Thomas Beecham, Pierre Monteux, Arthur Fiedler, Walter Susskind, and Milton Katims, Hokanson was offered a professorship at the faculty of University of Washington. This, in my estimation, might have been the university's musical heyday. The UW faculty included violinist Emanuel Zetlin, cellist Eva Heinitz,  violist Vilem Sokol, and conductor Stanley Chapple. Hokanson devotes an entire chapter to his teaching philosophy and principles, most notably: "The ear governs the act". He invokes Myra Hess' dictum, "Think three times before you play a note!".

Mr. Hokanson brings his memoir to a heartfelt coda: "I find now that it needs only a few of the right words to change an attitude or instill a belief—but it has taken a lifetime of engagement with the world to arrive at that simplicity."

His words have taken effect. I returned to Mr. Hokanson's studio today with a pile of music: Bach, Mozart, and Brahms Sonatas. "I prefer to play music with those I love," I told him, and he agreed. We will be meeting for weekly sessions. To hear Randy Hokanson render a phrase is to behold a living link with tradition, all the way back from Carl Friedberg to Schumann and Brahms; an age when more emphasis was given to the principles of correct phrasing than to maximum technical efficiency. We both recognize that time is precious; there's much to accomplish; a new chapter begins.