Michelle Makarski violin
Recorded June 1995, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
With such varied artists as Paul Giger, John Holloway, and Thomas Zehetmair vying for the violin enthusiast’s attention, ECM has revitalized the solo program perhaps more than any other label. Yet nowhere has it found such a colorful proponent of new and established repertoire alike as American musician Michelle Makarski. For Caoine, her first solitary ECM effort (she had previously appeared as soloist in Keith Jarrett’s Bridge of Light), Makarski has assembled a unique collection of music to be discovered. The program opens with the formidable “Passacaglia” of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, a composition whose methods and melodies are one in the same. What seems on the surface purely etudinal breeds its own robust musicality without ever flaunting itself as such. Its ostinato of G, F, E-flat, D is repeated 65 times, each successive variation requiring deeper attention on the part of the performer. Being one of the earliest extant paragons of solo violin literature, it is perhaps the ideal meta-statement with which to begin such an album. Although the piece employs the full gamut of techniques available to the virtuoso at the time of its composition (ca. 1670), the result is solemn and rich in cosmological potency. The visceral title track is by Stephen Hartke, one of America’s most distinctive composers who has seen minimal but vital representation on ECM. The title itself (pronounced “keen,” from which the English word of the same spelling is derived) is a Celtic word referring to, in the composer’s words, the “wail or dirge sung by professional mourners in old Ireland.” Hartke’s almost folkloristic approach nestles comfortably in its surroundings. It seems to round itself into an emotive orifice, projecting its cries through funereal motions with all the tenacity of a genuine inner grief. After this catharsis, Max Reger’s “Chaconne” (1910) returns our attention to the Baroque. While blatantly indebted in Bach, Reger follows his own bold trajectory in this rather demanding piece. Makarski negotiates its many turns with just the right balance of force and finesse, not to mention an expert control of harmonics. Selections from George Rochberg’s 50 Caprice Variations (1970) pave the way to a tender performance of Bach’s first Partita (1720). The Variations speak in their own idiosyncratic vocabularies, never afraid to admonish and alleviate in the same breath. Nos. 41 and 42 stand out for me, the former for its Prokofiev-like syncopation and the latter for its high metallic sheen. These deconstructions of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 speak directly to Rochberg’s essayistic fixations. As intertextual as they are self-negating, they comprise an homage individually wrapped in bite-sized morsels. As for the Bach, Makarski has felicitously chosen my favorite among the composer’s Sonatas and Partitas. Her performance of the captivating Allemande comes through with refined grace and rhythmic economy through to the sparingly realized finale.
What links these pieces is an appreciation of the originary motif as an aesthetic not necessarily of size, but more accurately of scale, mining the paradox of its highly expansive potential through the process of recapitulation. This is encapsulated most beautifully in the final track, in which Bach unpacks, not unlike Biber, a staggering amount of information from a mere handful of ordered gestures. Makarski’s profound recital is built as much around the variation of theme as around the theme of variation, pulling its red thread gracefully through four centuries of musical history in the span of a single CD.
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