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The lone gunwoman: Saetta.

Happy Anniversary
By B.A. Nilsson

Mary Lou Saetta

First Congregational Church, Albany, Sept. 24

Whether we care to admit it or not, most piano music easily fades into the background. This is also true when you add a violin. But a solo violin recital is a challenge to the listener, asking a more active participation because of the leaner texture and abstract suggestions of harmony.

Such events, therefore, are a rarity, so it was courageous of Mary Lou Saetta to celebrate 50 years of professional music-making with a solo recital. It also gave her the opportunity to share music that’s obviously dear to her heart.

During the many years that she and her husband, flutist Irvin Gilman, have been concertizing as Capitol Chamber Artists, the music of Bach has been a touchstone, a constant. During last Saturday’s recital, she played two of his solo sonatas: one from the collection of six for violin, one from the six for cello.

The program opened with the Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major, which she played on the viola, an instrument that shares the cello’s range but is pitched an octave higher. It’s a dramatic change in timbre, but equally effective as an interpretive medium. As to Saetta’s interpretation, I approach describing it as a soul in conflict. She took what I think of as a very romantic approach, while I’m a strict-time kind of a guy. You can have your Furtwängler; I’ll take Toscanini.

But as she played I was reminded of my love-hate relationship with the 1936 Casals recording of this piece. It was a landmark recording in its time, and I acquired an LP of it some 40 years ago. I hated all the liberties I believed he took with the score and got rid of it. Then I missed it. I got another. I went through the same cycle again, and I’m on my second CD version of it now. Good music-making will always inspire such passion.

Thus it also was with Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, written for and played on the violin. But where the cello suite is a set of dance movements, this piece throws the performer a curve ball in the form of a fugal second movement, then wraps up the piece with a display of fiery arpeggio work. Saetta’s playing had the necessary combination of warmth and grit to make sense of this complicated piece; my only caution is that I think she may be letting her admiration for Bach the composer get in the way of the freedom to have all the fun you can muster in playing these pieces.

That sense of freedom was at the fore in Eugene Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2 for solo violin, a work subtitled “Obsession.” It’s one of six that the violinist-composer published in 1924, trying to make up for the lack of his instrument’s solo repertory (a lack he attributed to the shadow of Bach).

The work starts out with a tribute to Bach by way of the Preludio from his Partita No. 3 for violin solo, which is quoted, fragmented and generally fussed with before being fused with the Dies Irae, a lament that underlies the rest of the sonata, and is transformed throughout the third movement, a set of variations that called out all of Saetta’s technical resources as she nimbly navigated double stops and left-hand pizzicato, all of it used to excellent effect.

Tribute to Bach also was paid by Aram Khachaturian, whose obscure but lovely Sonata Monologue also demanded tremendous technical agility even as he poured forth with the kind of melancholy, affecting melody we know from his Gayne ballet.

Rounding out the program was Aulis Sallinen’s Cadenza, a short work written for a violin competition and given its U.S. premiere by Saetta a few years ago. Sallinen built the work on a three-note sequence that morphs into a series of differently colored events, a faint air of Shostakovich informing the work. Again, Saetta’s playing mixed the needed level of skill with a profound sense of passionate conviction: Even the trio of fiddle tunes she offered as an encore had an intensity not many hoedowns provide.

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