Wednesday 26 October 2011

Herwig Zack: 4 Strings Only

4 Strings Only: A Recital for Solo Violin


Herwig Zack (violin)


Several themes run through this album of solo violin music from German violinist Herwig Zack.  Four of the works suggest a broadening of the repertoire in the shadow of the fifth; Bach’s violin works, after all, being so dominant in the repertoire.  Three of them were composed for Yehudi Menuhin, a prolific commissioner of new music, while Menuhin’s Bach remains one of his most important legacies.  And, perhaps more trivially, this disc reminds us that besides Bach, plenty of other Bs wrote solo violin music.

Zack’s recital gives us the two Suites by Bloch, in reverse order and separated by a sample of Bach’s mighty example of violin writing.  Bloch’s Suites for solo violin, composed for Menuhin, date from quite late in the composer’s life (both written in 1958) and maybe their close proximity makes them sound like two sides of a musical coin.  The Suites’ language is lonely, anguished, and at times quite angular.  If anything, the First Suite in more introspective than the Second, though its initial upward stab makes for a striking and combative opening.  At its heart is a brief Andante, just two lines long in the score, which evokes the more simple tonality of Bach.  Zach underscores this link by paring back his tone and vibrato, a technique also deployed in the Bach Second Sonata.

The Second Suite occasionally slips into a Bartokian sound world, and perhaps its most striking moment is a series of declamatory chords in the moderato second movement.  These are both intriguing works, but I must admit that despite having listened to them a number of times, I’ve struggled to retain the sound of them in my memory.  Zack’s intonation is always precise, but he’s let down, particularly in these works, by the recording’s lack of dynamic contrast; fortissimo moments are often little varied from pianos that follow them, though I sense that this is not Zack’s fault.  The dynamic issues are less of a problem in Bach’s Second Sonata, BWV 1003, in which Zack’s borrows period simplicity with minimal vibrato and sustain.  He adapts his sound very well, though a less self consciously stylised performance might have made more of the lines of the Fuga or of the famous andante.  

The last two works on the disc turn out to be the most appealing.  Paul Ben-Haim’s Sonata of 1951 makes a great play of Jewish elements, such as a distinctive harmony and single note drones maintained beneath modal flourishes.  Zack is at his very best in Berio’s Sequenza VIII, which plays with the idea of closely pitched clusters of notes and, in a brilliant central section, a ghostly toccata of smudged semi quavers.  At one point, Zack excels himself by continuing the toccata while interjecting four-note chords into their flow without ever loosing the thread of the underlying semi quavers.  It’s a bravura moment from a very impressive violinist.

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