The violinist Pavel Šporcl is today a mature artist at the peak of his creative powers. Among his contemporaries, at least those in the Czech Republic, he is indisputably one of the most singular soloists, and since the very beginning he has been able to ruffle the waters with his unorthodox approach to presenting and promoting classical music. Nevertheless, unlike many other artists with a similar inclination, Šporcl’s flamboyant performances have always been substantiated by top-notch professionalism and artistic responsibility. He can be ranked among the group of sincerely and wittingly provoking seekers of new paths, alongside Gidon Kremer and, using an extreme example, Nigel Kennedy. Yet, in contrast to the latter, Pavel Šporcl has been maturing as an artist over time, gaining experience and concurrently forming his commensurate image.
Not even his early performances came across as his putting on a show at the expense of making the artistic deliverance less profound, striving instead to purge the musical performance of excessive formality and thereby make it more accessible to the audience. In October 2015, Supraphon released Šporcl’s recording of the complete Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach (SU 4186–2). Although this work is already being learned by conservatory students, it can only be mastered at the top level by truly accomplished instrumentalists.
Therefore, the majority of world-celebrated violinists aspire to present and record the conception of their interpretation. And there are myriad possible accounts of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. I, for one, give preference to considerably conservative and traditional conceptions, hence Pavel Šporcl’s uncommonly fetterless approach, including, for instance, the loosening of the strict rhythmic accuracy, initially came across as somewhat disturbing. Yet then I suddenly felt something that could be compared to the sensation when after viewing a landscape through a perfect photographic template you observe the same scenery live, with all the attendant movement, wind, colour transformations and ripples on water. And I think I have comprehended Šporcl’s intention – to create a picture of the live, vigorous landscape of Bach’s universe. So I asked Pavel Šporcl for an interview.
How did you approach the performance and conception of your recording?
I had wanted to make a recording of the Sonatas and Partitas for many years, yet had never had the opportunity to do so. And I didn’t consider myself quite up to it until recently, when I felt that I could finally plunge into it. Just a year ago, I hadn’t even played all the pieces. I had performed the Partitas, often played the Ciaccona, but only some of the Sonatas. I had too great a respect for the Sonatas in C major and A minor, with their respective 10– and 12-minute fugues. They are extremely difficult. I had intensively studied Bach’s solo works with Professor Snítil, who provided me with the rudiments and also taught me how to read from the urtext. Plenty of editions contain added legatos, fingering, etc, and Snítil wanted me to get familiar with the original score and play it according to the composer’s actual intention. But this was back in the 1990s, the time of a somewhat Romantic interpretation of Bach’s music.
A prime example of this trend is Szeryng’s recordings. Since then, the perception of Baroque music has significantly, almost totally, changed: we have seen the emergence of period instruments, historically informed performance, new discoveries, Baroque orchestras, and the music is now delivered somewhat more lightly. In the past, Bach’s works would be played in a very compact manner. He was a true god, up there on his sacred pedestal. Today, we deliver his music in a lighter, more dance-like way, melodically and, actually, with a certain aloofness. When it comes to my perception of Baroque music, I have also been influenced by my collaboration with the Czech Ensemble Baroque, with whom I have performed several programmes. I am now passing through a, so to speak, meditative phase, which is probably related to the current state of my soul (smiles). When I listened to my new recording, I found it, particularly as regards the slow movements, highly meditative and relaxed.
The recordings of the Sonatas and Partitas made by individual violinists markedly differ, even within a single generation. For contemporary violinists, retaining the polyphonic lines in their full length, especially in the case of the fugues, is a nut almost impossible to crack. Those who have striven to strictly adhere to them, even though it was technically challenging, include Konstantin Mostras and Břetislav Novotný, the latter of whom was the only one to have made such a recording. The albums of other violinists do not appear to tackle this issue.
Naturally, all the lines are important, and I really did my very best to have them all there, since the polyphonic aspect of the composition is of immense significance. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a violinist living over 300 years ago. I kept ruminating about how the Baroque musicians played. I was pondering the bowing, fingering, taking into account the fact that the violin technique at the time was relatively limited. How did they approach the pieces? How much time did they have to learn them, given that every evening something different was played? I don’t think that they even had a chance to mull over whether the whole melody should be played on the G string, as Professor Snítil wished, for instance, or should be primarily perceived polyphonically, yet executed in the registers that are easier to play. I strove to reach a sort of compromise. Now and then, I listened to a recording, so as to glean some inspiration. And I also realised that the most recent Czech recording of the Sonatas and Partitas was Josef Suk’s, some 45 years ago. Of course, I know the recordings made by Szeryng, Grumiaux, Perlman and other violinists, including those specialised in Baroque. Some of them still use open strings in all the melodies and themes, while others keep devising something novel. Every violinist plays it differently. Which means that there’s no such thing as an authentic performance. Bach’s music is specific and beautiful. There is still a lot to discover in it, so even contemporary violinists can come up with their own concepts. And this is what I really set out to do. The Sonatas and Partitas can be played in thousands of manners. And that is what I find the most wonderful thing about this immortal music.
Did you use Bach’s manuscript when preparing the recording?
Long before the recording sessions had started, I decided that I would learn the movements from the aforementioned urtext, so as to evoke the correct Bach atmosphere. And I used it for the recording. The recording director, Mr. Puklický, had the urtext available too. So as to know where we were in the recording, both of us had it in front of us. Learning Bach’s manuscript was no easy task: it is too difficult to read for contemporary musicians, and I was used to printed scores. So, in a way, I had to learn how to read it again from the urtext. Yet when it comes to the tour I am scheduled to make, I will play the Sonatas and Partitas by heart.
Were you influenced, even on a subconscious level, by the texture, the Baroque legato lines and other graphic details of the urtext?
It goes without saying that it influenced me, but it also helped. That was one of the aspects that allowed me to better stylise myself or bring me to the Baroque era, to get into the skin of the Baroque violinist, that is, at least within today’s possibilities.
How far did Bach’s urtext impact your bowing?
As regards the bowing, I made minimal changes. Even in the places where I could bow twice upwards I played up and down or vice versa even. As a result, the chord in all the fugues appeared somewhat as non-violin, since the three-part chord is not easy to play by bowing up. But I think that at the time they played it that way, as the bridges, strings and the entire structure of the violin were a little bit different. The bows were different too. Evidently, it was easier to play the chords that way. In this respect too, I simply wanted to play like a Baroque violinist, which gave rise to numerous technical ambiguities and difficulties. I am not exaggerating when I say that about 95% of the bowings I play are really written in the urtext, which is, by the way, very precise.
Some of the notes are distinctly vibrato, while others you leave in a straight tone. Sometimes you play the open E string, at others you do not. It would seem that you are not governed by any strict doctrine, rather letting yourself be led by the feeling, the feeling of “what is needed”. Is that right?
In the main, I definitely abided by my feeling and the melodic line, so that it made sense from my viewpoint. After all, I think that, given my generally known – not entirely conventional – approach to classical music, no one expects me to adhere to any strict rules (laughs). And this is also the case of my performance of Bach’s music. I play it the way I think the composer intended it to be played, I seek to feel the spirit of the work. Baroque music is about great emotions and their transformations. The word “baroque” is derived from the Spanish “barrueco”, an irregularly-shaped pearl, which means that something should be constantly happening in Baroque music. And that is what I aimed to achieve. The listener should be surprised.
Some distinguish between the styles (the manner and spirit of performance) of the Italian Baroque (Vivaldi, Corelli, Tartini, etc.) and the German, Bachian, Baroque. How do you see this reflecting in the manner of performance?
Not that significantly. Bach and Vivaldi knew each other, for instance, or at least knew about each other, and even transposed each other’s compositions. At the time, musicians travelled widely in Europe, influencing each other. Bach himself learned a lot from and was inspired by his colleagues, not only in Weimar, but also in the other places where he worked. He pretty much strove to attain perfection, improving his music by absorbing new trends. Therefore, he felt offended by the critics, claiming that he was actually a beginner. I don’t think he ever was a beginner. In my opinion, this strict division is not appropriate. Bach’s Partitas primarily draw upon French dances, yet the third is totally different from the first two. So it is difficult to take one’s bearings as to which corner of Europe the individual pieces hailed from. And here I have again arrived at the conclusion that I made use of the knowledge I had gained for concentrating on my own feelings and making sense of the integrated performance.