Michelle Makarski: To Be Sung on the Water (ECM New Series 1871)


Michelle Makarski
To Be Sung on the Water

Michelle Makarski violin
Ronald Copes viola
Recorded March 2004, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Like the blade of light on the album’s cover, Michelle Makarski draws luminescence through the darkness with her bow. For her third ECM recital disc, the violinist further hones both her craft and her sense of programming, constructing a Jacob’s ladder of Giuseppe Tartini and American composer Donald Crockett, the latter of whom offers two works in Makarski’s honor. Of these is the album’s 1988 title work, for which she is joined by violist Ronald Copes. Its lush double stops create a virtual quartet. From these arise steady pulses, slowly lobbed between the two instruments. Even as the narrative fragments midway through, the other always picks up the action in one, as if looking in a mirror that shows the distant past. Open strings prevail in this meeting of voice and translucent surface, a conversation between opacity of the instrument and transparency of the voice.

Hugging this piece are two sonatas by Tartini. The Sonata IX in A Major achieves an intimacy on par with Bach’s solo works. Yet where Bach inscribes the waking world with his solitary thoughts, Tartini crams that same world into the depths of his dreams in order to salvage what might otherwise remain unseen. The inaugural Largo sways with the same flexibility, as might a dream in which the parameters of one’s immediate reality are just as indecipherable as those beyond it. This renders the Allegro that follows a negation of self. Hence the echoes in the third movement, softer in the anchored line of the double stop, weaving its way like a caduceus into the frantic trills of the final proclamation. With its ponderous dissonances and looming double stops, the first strains of the Sonata II in d minor sound closest to Crockett. And while the middle movement is far more exuberant, filled with dancing diversions, the final Allegro marks a sinuous organism, its lines curling like fingers beckoning from behind a curtain.

All of this makes of Crockett’s mickey finn (1996) an urgent crawl to a bygone era, a literary and geographic aside wrenched from the ether with reluctant precision. Crockett’s tantalizing grasp of language makes for a delectable passage into Tartini’s  Sonata XIII in b minor. Makarski articulates the ground lines most strongly here, drawing them out to allow their resonance to overtake the lead. This is clearest in the stunning Andante, which finds its second self reinvigorated in the arousing Giga.

These works by Tartini, despite their bare construction, ask of the musician a certain depth of expression that Makarski handles with intuitive linearity. The music of Crockett similarly draws out the violin’s potential as songstress, shedding the husk of programmatic arbitrariness in favor of direct communication. Both write music without masks, and both are given the ideal mouthpiece in a violinist whose touch is supreme.

Michelle Makarski: Elogio per un’ombra (ECM New Series 1712)


Michelle Makarski
Elogio per un’ombra

Michelle Makarski violin
Thomas Larcher piano
Recorded May 1999, Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For her second ECM recital, Michigan native Michelle Makarski has assembled an equally disparate yet harmonious program. The endlessly fascinating Caprice Variations (1971) of George Rochberg (1918-2005) continue where they left off on the violinist’s label debut, Caoine, twirling into a sonic thread between the two. Makarski is a particularly sublime interpreter of Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), whose music is the window into all that borders it. His Sonata VII in A minor is spread throughout in large bites, each gnawing on the succulent Sarabanda at their core. Its lilting cadences and finely executed trills capture our melodic eye from note one to none. The Due Studi (1947) of Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975), an early Italian devotee of the Second Viennese School, share Tartini’s affinity for deconstruction. Here, Makarski is joined by Thomas Larcher on piano for added color. The album’s title piece, written in 1971 by Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003), carries us through a gentle introduction and softly piercing high notes into a conduit of agitations and protracted statements. Though delicate in its tension, it nonetheless requires lucid virtuosity. Elliott Carter balances this out with a Riconoscenza (1984) for the same composer. Larcher returns for the Due Pezzi (1951) of Luciano Berio (1925-2003). These are more playful, if naïve, pieces with enough neo-classical flint from which to strike an adequate fire. Makarski then graces us with the anonymous Lamento di Tristano of 14th-century Italy, played sul ponticello for a rather metallic slide into finality.

Michelle Makarski: Caoine (ECM New Series 1587)

Michelle Makarski

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.

Alternate cover

<< Egberto Gismonti: Meeting Point (ECM 1586)
>> Louis Sclavis Sextet: Les Violences de Rameau (ECM 1588)

Keith Jarrett: Bridge Of Light (ECM New Series 1450)

Keith Jarrett
Bridge Of Light

The Fairfield Orchestra
Thomas Crawford conductor
Keith Jarrett piano
Michelle Makarski violin
Marcia Butler oboe
Patricia McCarty viola
Recorded March 1993, State University of New York, Purchase
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Keith Jarrett and Manfred Eicher

Keith Jarrett’s classical compositions tend to feel, not surprisingly, like an expanded piano in which the left and right hands come to be demarcated by greater instrumental forces. I also tend to hear the improvisational origins from which I imagine his music sprouts, as if the orchestra were simply channeling the pianist’s gift for spontaneous creation with due simultaneity. This is by no means a detriment to his efforts in this field, for it cleverly reconfigures the orchestra’s traditional physiognomy. Yet what I hear in the Elegy for Violin and String Orchestra that opens this striking disc is something altogether different from his previous efforts and, dare I say, more fully realized. Here, Jarrett approaches the orchestra on its own terms—cutting a path that is somewhere between the density of a symphony and the detail of a string quartet—in a deft exchange of pensive asides and grander responses. It is a piece about perseverance, reveling in its own structural integrity, and is one of Jarrett’s most painterly compositions.

The Adagio for Oboe and String Orchestra that follows pulls at the same threads, loosening knots that were once ironclad. The structure is therefore freer, amorphously shifting itself into a variety of shapes, while always maintaining the same spirit.

If I were to make any general statement about Jarrett’s classical music, it would be that his lead melodies possess a profound melodic drive. One can hear this most vividly in the beautiful Sonata for Violin and Piano that follows, and particularly in the second movement, “Song.” The Sonata features the composer at the keyboard and glows with a Mozartean charm. The music rolls off the fingers of both musicians with consummate ease and never lets up for a moment, always searching for a new field of expression in which to make itself known. The fourth movement, “Birth,” is, like its name implies, a liminal realm of uncertainty in which dissonance is creation. The third and fifth movements, both titled “Dance,” play with the shadows at the periphery, breathing with a whimsical, almost Bartókian flavor that soothes even as it invigorates.

The title work for viola and orchestra opens with a lush inhalation before the viola expels its rather mournful proclamation. Yet within that yearning a glimmer of hope slowly unfolds. The viola charts a consolatory path, feeling as if it were remembering a journey long past while also sharing those experiences as they happen. Two solo passages act like messengers as the music builds to a glorious ascent, then subsides into its gentle coda, where resolution seems but a natural extension of what came before.

The performers on Bridge Of Light make delicate work of Jarrett’s soundscapes, balancing reservation and overstatement with reverence. Moments of unity abound in which soloists and orchestra share the same breath. It is in these moments that we find glimpses of what makes us human, shaping our internal lives like the ceaseless flow of time.

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>> Barre Phillips: Aquarian Rain (ECM 1451)