After muted first half, violinist brings Old World panache to Carnegie recital

Thu Jun 13, 2024 at 1:39 pm
Virgil Boutellis-Taft performed at Zankel Hall Wednesday night.

Violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft’s Wednesday night recital in Zankel Hall was a story of two drastically different halves. The first was something of a haunted time capsule from a dusty past of polite parlor listening, the second the kind of personal and passionate playing one should expect from a notable young musician.

With pianist JuYoung Park, Boutellis-Taft played Bruch’s Kol Nidre (arranged for violin), Schumann’s First Violin Sonata, and the Sérénade mélancolique from Tchaikovsky on the first half. The program after intermission was Janáček’s Violin Sonata, Bloch’s “Nigun,” and the Danse macabre by Saint-Saëns. The shorter works were a demonstration of his sound and style, but it was the sonatas that established the two extremes of the evening.

Boutellis-Taft has a classic, old-world sound. While many violinists cultivate a bright, silvery tone, he rounds off those upper textures into a robust, chesty quality. With a substantial seasoning of fiddle playing, there was an uncanny sensation of hearing old 78s and mono recordings of the standard repertoire. Provocative on its own, this was a pleasant surprise when paired with the more staid and expressively muted playing on the first half.

The duo had a deliberate rhythmic sense, not rigid in that their phrasing was smooth, but absolutely set on the downbeats and without any tension of rubato or even anticipation. From the ground up, this had an effect on all of Boutellis-Taft’s playing. In the long and graceful phrases of the Bruch and Tchaikovsky, this was a solid proposition, the violinist unspooling a singing style in the music.

With Schumann, though, this approach felt misguided. The regularity of rhythm made for an orderly approach to music that is full of the threat of disorder, which gives it beauty and power. A long, predictable view of phrasing meant no space for Boutellis-Taft to vary his attacks and articulation, his tone color, no bite or agitation. The duo managed what one had thought impossible, which was to completely smooth over the essential harmonic and structural instability in this fantastic piece.

The second half showed that this was a matter more of mood than interpretive decisions. Perhaps it was the sheer force of Janáček that opened up the playing, but this sonata performance was both superb and expressively right.

There is literally no way to make a long line in the piece. Janáček’s composing starts with the fundamental sound of the consonants and rhythms of the Czech language, full of sharp accents and the feeling that time is being pushed forward. In addition, his expressive manner is to break things up into small units, juxtaposed against each other.

Boutellis-Taft and Park brought great vitality to the music, the sense that they had shaken off whatever torpor limited the first half. The violinist seemed altogether more extroverted, confident, and even irreverent from the start, thumbing the secondary pizzicato phrase of the opening movement even before the full performance began.

There was intensity to each emotion, from confusion to satisfaction, anxiety to serenity, supple movement between each. The life in this playing continued through a lovely rendition of “Nigun,” from Bloch’s Baal Shem, the mood recalling the opening of the recital but the playing committed and fulfilling.

The Danse macabre was the kind of encore-like showpiece one expected, Boutellis-Taft attacking each line with great energy, his rich tone bringing out deeper feeling in the music than one usually hears. With a gentle, heartfelt encore of the Jewish tune “Chanson d’exil,” this second half felt like what one had come to hear.

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