Review by Beagle August 1, 2008 (13 of 13 found this review helpful)
|Mrs Beagle and I are relaxing on a beautiful summer evening, and I am flicking the buttons on the remote to toggle between player A and player B. I ask her what she thinks of the playing on A: "restrained, rather flat really". And on B: "It's got bite, real presence and quite lively". I would add "and perhaps just a touch of humour". The disc on player A is Bach: Sonatas & Partitas - Julia Fischer; the disc on B is Bach: The Six Sonatas & Partitas for Violin Solo - Lara St. John.
Granted, Lara Saint John does not interview well (cf my dismissive remarks in the Discussion). And granted, she promotes her career with more bodily presence than the eyes-downcast, demure Julia Fischer. That having been said, I must now grovel at Saint John's feet and beg her forgiveness.... (I will listen to an hour -- nay, two hours! -- of Brahms as punishment.)
This is not quirky music-making, such as Nigel Kennedy used to force another Vivaldi 'Four Seasons' recording into my library. Ms Saint John is truly "inside the music", kicking life into a piece which can easily be boring connect-the-dots virtuosity. In addition to Fischer, I have Itzhak Perlman's 1987 recording of The Six. I am of course somewhat swayed by the sound of the SACD, but even beyond that consideration, I prefer the Saint John performance here even to Perlman's -- emphatically so. I am too busy replaying this disc to enter all the timings into my database, but I note the following crescendo of tempi for Sonate Nr 1: Fischer 17:10, Perlman 16:38, Saint John 15:07. A faster tempo isn't everything, but it does serve as a good proxy for confidence and energy. Mrs Beagle and I can detect the occasional incidental bow sound -- but such accidents only serve to authenticate the illusion of a 'live' performance.*
The sound here is breath-takingly good; the solo violin effectively occupies the whole far-end of the livingroom. Small wonder, since the recording engineer is the famous Martha de Francisco (whom I inadvertently insulted when I reviewed Mozart: Piano Sonatas - Brendel). So full apologies for any previous implied slight of Ms de Francisco's art, I bestow the full five stars to a recording which ought to become a collectors' item.**
If as a reviewer I must find some small detail to criticise, it is the small thin black-on-grey type in which the timings are printed -- that, and the difficulty of reading the Ancalagon label name. I hope one of the qualifications of a reviewer is the ability to confess wrong-headedness, because I blush deeply for my remarks in the Discussion section. I am very happy to have been so dreadfully wrong. Thank you, George Flanagin.
* I had a hunch that Saint John was ‘playing through’, i.e. not splicing together these performances. Martha de Francisco states “She is notorious for only playing complete versions of the works she records. Never does she agree to play a single ‘take’ of a passage. Every ‘take’ is a live performance of an entire movement. In this way the feeling of spontaneous musicianship never gets lost. The music is very much alive.”
** George mentions that Saint John does not wobble in and out of microphone range. We have Martha de Francisco to thank for that: “By placing various arrays of microphones carefully arranged in different distances and angles of the instrument, Lara’s sound could be depicted in a truly three-dimensional way. We chose advanced high definition recording technology and a combination of modern microphones that enable us to record the most transparent multifaceted sound (DPA and Neumann microphones in cardioid and in omni-directional patterns), the velvety smoothness (AEA88 ribbon microphone) and the special glow of her sound (vintage M50 Neumann microphones with tube amplifiers). Those microphones mixed together properly captured the unique warmth and excitement as well as the fine nuances that characterize Lara’s sound.”
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Review by georgeflanagin July 3, 2008 (12 of 14 found this review helpful)
This album is the most enjoyable one I have of these Bach Warhorses, but I hope St. John's performance is neither your first nor your only exposure to the music. The recording avoids all the problems I usually associate with solo instrumental recordings. A winner, even with the narcissistic liner notes.
- The Music.
- The Performance.
- The Liner Notes and Credits.
- The Sound.
Let's just skip this section because these are among the world's most well known pieces of Western Classical Music, and nothing I can say would be more than a highly optional repeat.
In my collection of (SA)CDs, I have performances of these works by Podger, Poppen, Barton-Pine, Mintz, and Perlman, and it was to these that I turned for comparison. Not that there is a best performance of works that are this well known, but I have leaned toward the Mintz recordings on DG for repeated listening and satisfaction. And then along comes Lara St. John.
How can I describe her performances? In the movie /Apocalypse Now/, Dennis Hopper's nameless reporter character says of Colonel Kurtz reading from /The Hollow Men/, "Oh, he's out there. He's really out there." Perhaps we can say that St. John is to Hilary Hahn (Hahn is my favorite young violinist) what Colonel Kurtz is to John Kerry?
While I think the analogy is useful if not true, it is unfair to fault St. John for following her own muse. The better appreciated 'cello suites are known in part for the absence of performance instructions in the score, which leaves performers a relatively blank slate on which to opine. I have a dozen sets of the 'cello suites, and the phrasing, dynamics, and tempi are all over the place.
My research led me to the Internet, where peeks at the manuscripts I obtained by surfing around provided insight. Much like the 'cello suites, there is not much there. Thus, to critics of these performances who say that authenticity has been sacrificed at the altar of personal aesthetics, I think one acceptable answer is, "Perhaps that's correct, but what's your point?"
Other performers have put a good bit of personal expression into the chaccone of the D minor partita, so it would not be unusual to find St. John's personal expression therein. That's too easy. Listen instead to the preceding "Giga" as it is left untranslated in the liner notes. I stacked all the performances I had of /this/ movement, the opening (adagio) movement of the G minor, and the largo of the C Major into a playlist on my iPod and set about listening for comparison.
St. John's playing is easily the most interesting of the lot, regardless of whether you like or dislike it. Her dynamics leave me wondering why no one else has conceived of the pieces this way, and they have added a great deal to my comprehension of the works. Her phrasing moves the works forward a couple of hundred years, out of the Baroque entirely, and to my ears such a move is as welcome as Matt Haimovitz's SACD recordings of the 'cello suites.
One of the things that St. John is able to do with both alacrity /and/ finesse is to play very softly with even bow pressure, drawing some of the smoothest and "sweetest" sound I have heard from a violin. I do not play stringed instruments, but my wife tells me that the hardest thing to do as a pianist is simultaneously play legato and piano, and based on the absence of similar sounds from other violinists, I am guessing that it is similarly hard to do. It's wonderful.
The recording and the sound:
Ah, you skipped down to here, didn't you? Violinists and singers seem each to have the tendency to wobble a bit before the microphone. I have a few recordings that can leave me a bit seasick as the invisible performer moves slightly left to right and backward to forward. Proximity to the microphone makes this all the much worse, because in a half a meter the performer can change his distance to the microphone by 50%, whereas in a live performance that might be only 2-3% of the distance from the performer to the listener. It drives me crazy.
This is a vertigo free recording. St. John stays firmly planted, dead center, in a reasonably natural sounding acoustic space. I am not sure how this was achieved at Skywalker Studios, because her legs certainly move even if the violin and mic stay together. For a while, I thought the UPS driver was knocking on the upstairs door because there are a lot of well recorded feet-on-the-stage sounds with which to contend. The stomping is not quite at the Leonard Bernstein level, but it can be a major distraction, particularly because you cannot see the source of the sound they way you can in a live concert. There are a few non-musical sounds in the recording, and I am curious if anyone else has noted a strange sound 0:26 into the finale of the C major sonata.
Other recording companies should take note that this recording presents the correct balance of finger noise to musical sound. St. John's playing is /clean/, but playing any stringed instrument is a noisy affair. I have wondered if some recordings go out of their way to record the finger noise in an exaggerated way just to make you feel like the performer is "in the room." Not so here. Again, a welcome change.
The music is all above 196Hz, the G-string of the violin. My spectrum analyzer reveals a very smooth background noise profile that starts about 150Hz at -70dB and rises at the rate of about 10db/octave below that to the limit of audibility. Unlike the London Tube sounds underneath Angela Hewitt's haunt, this noise is invariant, and does not present an audible distraction. Nonetheless, I preferred turning off my subwoofer's amplifier.
The liner notes and credits:
I wouldn't generally include a long discussion of this part of the product, but so much has been made in this site's discussion board and many other places about St. John's approach to marketing.
A cynical definition of "branding" might be "making the package is more important than the thing inside." Think Coke and Pepsi versus "Big K Cola" from the Kroger supermarket chain. St. John has brand in spades, and it /is/ a factor in her success. But like all things related to marketing, it is possible to overdo it, and this album overdoes it.
St. John's instrument is a 1779 Guadagnini, which is constantly referred to here and in other albums as having been provided by an anonymous donor. I call this repetition "conspicuous anonymity," meaning that the donor says "take this gift and be sure to mention over and over that it was anonymously given." OK OK, I get it.
I am aware of how hard it is to take a picture of anyone playing an instrument with the intent to have it look "real." The only picture of St. John /playing/ the violin is on the rear cover, and it is sterile and static, taken with a shutter speed high enough to completely freeze the action. And what exactly is she doing down at the beach? Is she like St. Anthony preaching to the fish? Why is this relevant to the music? Compare to the photos of Helene Grimaud in her /Credo/ SACD.
Twain Newhart is credited as the photographer, and he mentions in the liner notes that the cover was shot with a 6x7 (cm, for the non-photographer readers) camera on Fuji Reala. OK. He also mentions his Nikon D200 as having taken the digital photos, which I guess must be all the rest of them. OK, fine, but I hope you have upgraded to the D300 or the D3. I hate to see the CD used as an advertising vehicle for photography. (BTW, my own photography is located at www.digitalgaslight.net . Notice how distracting this bit of information is.)
The liner notes are glued to the cardboard, which I never enjoy. The cardboard is mentioned as being printed on recycled paper, and we are fortunate that advice was not offered to recycle it after use. The notes mention numerology, but are fairly informative otherwise, dwelling a good bit on tempi. Inside the liner notes is the one standout photo: a very interesting b/w by Sharon Gunderson, a less well known but better photographer.
This album is an enjoyable change of pace for me. I think it was money well spent, and I am torn between saying  this is a great SACD to have if you happen to also have a more mainstream performance, and  perhaps this will take a little dust off the baroque furniture and introduce new listeners to some great music. Get it anyway.
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