lone gunwoman: Saetta.
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.
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
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
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
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.