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Stereophile Magazine: About Lera Auerbach

John Marks writes in the magazine Stereophile (November 2003):

Lera Auerbach is an important new classical composer.

Stop!!! Freeze!!! Do not run from the room in search of silver bullets, wooden stakes, garlic, or a crucifix. Defenses, supernatural or otherwise, will not be necessary. For two reasons.

First, Ms. Auerbach's music, at least as represented on her new BIS CD, 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano (BIS CD 1242), is tonal and melodic. While they exhibit touches of modernism in their nods in the directions of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Messaien, on the whole Auerbach's 24 Preludes hark back to the 19th-century tradition of the instrumental virtuoso as composer. This is most definitely red-meat-and-red-wine music, not tofu-and-green-tea music.

Dare I call Lera Auerbach a neo-conservative? In her liner notes, she writes: Re-establishing the value and expressive possibilities of all the major and minor tonalities is as valid at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was during Bach's time, especially if we consider the aesthetics of Western music and its progress with regardor disregardto tonality during the last century.

Take that, you tenured radicals!

Auerbach is supposed to be something of a piano whiz herself. The Preludes' piano writing is chock-full of technical challenges, and quotations (some of them, I hope, tongue-in-cheek) from the lexicon of those mid-19th-century finger-busters remembered now only by keyboard completists. (Indeed, at one point I expected Dudley Do-Right to make an appearance, the piano part was so insistently melodramatic.) But there is more going on here than mere display, either pianistic or violinistic.

Writing separate but interconnected pieces of music for each of the major and minor keys is a considerable compositional challenge. Literally or figuratively, the busts of Bach and Shostakovich will be looking over one's shoulder from their places on the mantel. Without appearing presumptuous or self-important, Auerbach grabs the bull by the horns and holds her own.

The first Prelude (in C major) opens with a tolling-bell figure that strongly reminds me of the opening of Bach's C-major Sonata for solo violin. The second Prelude (A minor) is in waltz time, but its foreboding, heavy-footed piano part and contrastingly ironic comments from the violin strongly echo Shostakovich's compositional world. Like many virtuoso-composers before her, Auerbach is not shy about quoting. There is even a tango-inflected Prelude that could make one think of Piazzolla. (The commendably full disc also includes a Prayer and a wistful, truly lovely Postlude.)

This premiere recording is by the Preludes' dedicatees, violinist Vadim Guzman and pianist Angela Yoffe. Guzman plays with wonderful tone and solid pitch security, even in the most violin-unfriendly of remote keys, and Yoffe's playing is so spot-on that one quickly forgets all but the music.

The sound, as one would expect from BIS, is excellent. The piano has great depth of tone, and the sound of the violin (a 1690 Stradivari) is unfatiguing. Dynamic range is excellent. The perspective is live but not swimmy, and the balance between instruments is very natural. (This means that many violinists and violin fanciers will think the piano is too loud.)

Oh. Reason No.2 you need not get your defenses up is that Auerbach is as cute as the proverbial bug's ear. In the seemingly obligatory Christian Steiner headshot, she appears to be all of about 17, with an adorably crooked smile. Her biography puts her age at 30.

This is a disc that all fans of the piano and the violin should investigate. New-music fans may polarize a bit. If Boulez is your cup of tea, Auerbach's ethos may strike you as hopelessly retro, if not reactionary. If the "holy minimalism" of Arvo Prt is your home away from home, you probably won't get excited over this. But if a lot of modern music strikes you as stilted or self-important, and you yearn for actual melodies and harmonies, you might find yourself signing up for Lera Auerbach's fan club. I have.