FringeReview UK 2018
At the Chapel Royal, guitarist Paul Gregory and violin and violist Peter Shulski perform Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor (Shulski, violin) and Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata in a new arrangement by Gregory.
This was always going to be special. Concert co-founders guitarist Paul Gregory and violinist-violist Peter Shulski performed Bach and Schubert with three instruments between them.
We had Paul Gregory recently as cellist too. Here though Shulski took up the solo violin traversal of the great Partita in D minor BWV 1004, with the great Chaconne that recently has yielded up a tragic mystery. Composed in 1720 this work ends with that extraordinary meditation on death that commemorates Bach’s first wife, whom he left healthy and returned to find she wasn’t just dead but buried. It’s a heart’s Escorial of grief.
The D minor mantle falls over the whole work, from its dark Allemande opening, a ‘German’ dance for created by French composers here perfectly suiting its processional darkness, leading to a more ‘running’ courante.
Shulski plays with great inwardness and like Isabelle Faust who performed all Bach’s six solo violin works in 2015 at the Festival – he;s not frightened of the stricter beauty of the true. Like Faust he eschews mere beauty of tone and embraces risk-raking and intensity, even on a scorching day which plays havoc with strings everywhere. The results mesmerising. Whether in the sad Sarabande, a slow dance prophesying the Chaconne, the smiling-through-tears Gigue with its perky wake dance, or of course the Chaconne itself.
Shulski never hurries, building up the plateau of D minor on which the variations dance captive to the underlying theme pulsing beneath. It’s like a monument glinting from several angles, and easy to remind oneself of violinist Joshua Bell’s remark that it’s not just one of the greatest pieces in music, but one of the great human achievements in history. Listening here you believe that. Shulski’s unhurried approach though wasn’t lingering, and he took less than thirty minutes (it clocks in between 26and 32). What Shulski restored was immediacy over reverence, rawness over mere polish, and power over sleek dispatch. His deliberately exposing the architecture – the greatest for solo violin as Yeheudi Menhuin asserts – means th Escorial looms both rugged and complete. It’s an explosively memorable reading.
The Schubert’s tonic not only contrasts but is full of other innovations. Gregory has noticed the guitar fits over the piano part of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. That’s a kind of irony, in that this briefly-flourishing instrument (Schubert wrote the piece to commission in 1824) was a kind of six-stringed guitar itself, but bowed over. It fel out of fashion and cello and here viola transcriptions tend to be sued instead. This oddly restores a little of the sonance and perhaps balances in favour of the delicate string part.
It’s not often the viola dominates the texture but here from a side aisle that seemed the case. Gregory’s guitar was audible, giving glinting but rock-solid support to Shulski’s husky viola.
It’s in A minor, though as ever with Schubert something happens, joy I sorrow, melancholy in laughter. The overall feel is relatively light, more lyrically ruminative. The jaunting Allegro moderato with tis repeated refrains and almost drone-like melody gives way to an ambiguous adagio in E major. It’s a lovely rather evanescent and elusive piece too, and when the A major allegretto comes, well it’s a opalescent prelude to that sunburst. It’s full of melos and song, freighted with a kind of hard-won joy. It’s a wunning arrangmenent and though one can’t pint to some monumental turning and realize there’s the death-haunted Schubert or create another unmusical projection for an essentially joyous piece, lack of analysis hardly means lack of appreciation. Gregory and Shulski make it all seamless. And Gregory’s proved his point with this arrangement too: you see it in a new, summer-laden light.