When a subculture – take the world of classical violin playing – is so relatively small you must squint to see it, and so insular, the figures it deems controversial prompt a reckoning with what controversy, in this context, actually means. For a time, the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, among her field’s most prominent recipient of mixed reviews, devoted a section of her website to featuring her accumulating bad writeups, titled “Trash Bin.” (The section is on permanent hiatus; as she explains, “The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.”) She is an easy target: few, if any, violinists traversing storied classical stages are anything like her. Kopatchinskaja performs barefoot. Her repertoire of facial expressions would not be out of place at a Halloween revue; occasionally her eyes bulge to such an extent you wonder if they will fall out of their sockets. As she plays, she stomps, smiles, and, depending on the piece, sings. She performs her often polarizing interpretations of music from every century with such excitement and charisma that she becomes a kind of weather from which there is no shelter – like it or not, you will listen and consider her musical choices. She plays with the fearlessness of a child touching the instrument for the first time, but the sound that emerges is unmistakably that of that rare breed, a mature artist whose very being is still powered by curiosity.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Julia Wesely
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Julia Wesely

At this performance at the Park Avenue Armory, Kopatchinskaja shared the stage with cellist Jay Campbell. The combination – biphony – has been parried or neglected, felt to be somehow wanting, in light of compositions that are more harmonically rich at face value. Yet, with a program of mostly short duos that spanned the centuries, Kopatchinskaja and Campbell demonstrated the ensemble as a form not just complete in and of itself, but one enamored of possibility.  

They opened the program with several short pieces, beginning with Winchester Troper, which refers to one of the oldest European examples of two-part music. Written in a musical system long thought indecipherable, the 10th- or 11th-century manuscript has gradually made its way to audiences with the help of recent scholarship. Its calm, open intervals immediately gave way to the relatively violent, ricochet-laden “Toccatina all’inglese” from Jörg Widmann’s Duos for violin and cello. On exhibition was Kopatchsinkaja’s pizzicato – no twee effect but a hearty and full-throated gesture that makes her violin seem another instrument. Next came a fantasia by Orlando Gibbons, before returning to Widmann’s duos, this time playing a limping waltz that faded into a minor third, which Kopatchinskaja sustained like a long stare.

Played without interruption, these pieces from far-removed centuries seemed like movements from the same, capricious work. At the close of each, rather than stopping, Kopatchinskaja walked briskly from her stand to another. With the violinist replanted, the musicians immediately continued. Campbell, who did not change positions, was the literal and figurative lodestar here, allowing Kopatchinskaja’s dramatic flair to shine while responding to her invitations with his own energy and boundless, resonant tone.

Before the lights were turned off for the world première of Michael Hersch’s “...das Ruckgrat berstend”, the composer rose to give a reading of the text by the British poet Christopher Middleton that Kopatchinskaja, who commissioned the work, proceeded to intone like a prophet possessed over the course of the duet. Kopatchinskaja, who premiered Hersch's Violin Concerto in 2015, has described his music as “without any contradiction”, with “everything... in the right place, crafted as if with a scalpel”. The text’s apocalyptic “Second Coming”-like feeling found in the score an industrial partner, gleaming with long hazy tones and ecstatic scratches on both instruments.

Ligeti’s Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg, written for the composer’s Swiss composer friend, and Xenakis’ Dhipli Zyia were small surprises. In both, the composers known for sonic hi-jinks proved themselves agile hands at writing folk-influenced melodies. Preceding them was a short arrangement of Machaut’s Biaute qui toutes autres pere, which gave some foreground to Ligeti and Xenakis’ early experiments.

In the recital’s two long pieces – Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello and Kodaly’s Duo for Violin and Cello (the former is thought to have been written with the latter in mind), which closed the the program – Kopatchinskaja’s formidable, enviable stamina as a duo partner proved unearthly. Her body is elastic; as Hersch put it, she “wants to make music with every part”, drawing her violin in or wielding it as a weapon, in every case the instrument like another appendage. At times, in keeping with the character of the music, she seemed to lunge at Campbell, or stare at him like a friend thought lost for good. In every gesture and sound, she performed as some character, the sum of which could only be Kopatchinskaja herself.

Two whimsical shimmers served as the duo’s encores: a seasonally macabre moment from Pierrot Lunaire, replete with Kopatchinskaja’s spooky exclamations, and a lovingly plucked duet by CPE Bach.

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