Saturday 27 February 2021

What would Bach do? Guitarist Yuri Liberzon on recording the Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin in transcriptions by his teacher Manuel Barrueco

Yuri Liberzon
Yuri Liberzon

The guitarist Yuri Liberzon is not (yet) well-known in the UK. Born in Russia and brought up in Israel he moved to the USA at the age of 17 to study at the Peabody Conservatory and is now based in California. His latest disc, on Laudable Records, is Johann Sebastian Bach's three Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin in transcriptions made by his teacher, Cuban guitarist Manuel Barrueco. I recently met up with Yuri via Zoom, braving the challenges of time differences (9.30 am in California being 5.30 pm in London) to find out more about the disc and his approach to transcribing Bach for the guitar.

Bach: Three Violins Sonata - Yuri Liberzon
My first question was why play Bach on the guitar at all? For Yuri, Bach is always valid and appropriate, and the guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. And since Andres Segovia, it has become normal to play Bach on the instrument. Besides which, like many musicians, Yuri finds himself constantly returning to Bach's music and Yuri plays the guitar, so the question is, why not? 

Yuri has transcribed Bach's Partitas for unaccompanied violin for guitar, but he found that his teacher's transcriptions of the sonatas were perfect. Yuri did not have enough to say to do his own transcriptions, though he made small changes to Barrueco's transcriptions. One of the important things is that Barrueco keeps the original keys. When playing individual sonatas, guitarists sometimes alter the keys, but as soon as Yuri decided he was going to record all three he realised he needed to keep the key relationships.

Bach writes polyphonically for his solo violin, implying harmony and multiple voices by using double-stopping and string crossing. But a guitarist can play more notes simultaneously than a violinist can, so the question is, how much of the implied harmony to fill in? Yuri comments that some purists play Bach's original violin part on the guitar, adding nothing but he feels that there is room for the imagination to think what Bach might do, though he wants to add less of himself and to let the music speak for himself. How many extra notes he adds very much depends on the music, varying from work to work and even from movement to movement, but always asking what would Bach do?

The modern guitar is a Romantic instrument, it developed in the 19th century, so another question is how to approach the music, Romantic or Historically Informed? Yuri tries to stay away from over romanticising the music, yet he also wants to avoid fugues that are strict and emotionless. Balance is necessary, though he favours the more reserved approach. But he points out that the slow movements are often more like fantasias and there is more room here for freedom, for liberties, and even in the faster movements there is still an element of freedom as the player has a lot of say in how the music is phrased.

And there is a lot of Bach that can be explored on the guitar. When he was younger Yuri performed the lute suites and would love to return to them and transcribe them for guitar, and then there are the cello suites, and he has also played transcriptions for two guitars. He always goes back to Bach, the music centres him and elevates his mood. Yuri has had this Bach programme in mind for years. When he first came to the USA he heard Manuel Barrueco's recording of the sonatas and found it phenomenal. He hoped to record one of the sonatas and then went for all three. He feels the recording is a personal accomplishment.

Growing up, he loved Bach's music and did not understand Mozart, thinking that Mozart's music didn't have depth, But as Yuri got older he changed his mind, realising that Mozart was a genius yet different to Bach. It was an interesting journey for him to go on from not liking Mozart to loving him.

Yuri Liberzon
Yuri Liberzon

The repertoire on the disc is, of course, music transcribed for guitar and the whole wider issue of guitar repertoire is a challenge. There are relatively few unalloyed masterpieces written for the guitar, and a guitarist needs to look either to works by lesser-known guitarist/composer (usually beloved of guitarists but hardly known to the wider public) or transcriptions of other repertoire. How to balance these is a difficult question, and Yuri feels that you need to be truthful. When planning repertoire he always asks himself do I really love the piece, is it meaningful, if the answer is no then he doesn't play it. He needs to believe in a piece to do it justice.

There is a small island of music that can be appreciated by a wide range of audience, whilst the more avant-garde music speaks to a select group. Then there is the very popular repertoire, everyone knows it; it is rather overdone and doesn't interest him. Yuri tends to go for music that is beautifully arranged, he mentions Toru Takemitsu's versions of Beatles songs which he calls mindblowing. Yuri likes to cross genres, rather than not limiting himself to classical. He finds cross-over genres versatile, and he feels at home. 

Whilst he likes music written for the guitar, Yuri feels that when a guitarist writes for the guitar they are already limited. It is when a composer thinks of something impossible and makes it possible that the magic happens.

Yuri was born in Russia and grew up in Israel, neither of which is known for the guitar. But Yuri's father played the guitar, a Russian seven-string one on which he played Russian romances. And Yuri gravitated to the instrument, and as a child, he had tapes of guitarists. He feels that the biggest influence on him was not a particular culture but the experience of migrating and starting over. This made him ask questions such as what am I about, what do I want to do? And this pushed him.

In fact, his next project is a contemporary Russian composer. Yuri is recording a disc of music by Konstantin Vassiliev for Naxos. Vassiliev is from Siberia, near where Yuri was born, but lives in Germany and Yuri describes his music as jazz-influenced.

Yuri Liberzon
Yuri Liberzon

At the age of five, Yuri's mother took him to a music school where he did a little exam, and they said he could play violin or piano, but he burst into tears saying he wanted to play the guitar. The guitar teacher did not take pupils under the age of nine, but he made an exception, and they found a small guitar, with steel strings (Yuri describes it as factory-made and bad!). His teacher would write melodies for Yuri to play, this got him going, he found it inspiring. Later he switched teachers, and the new one was far more strict, emulating Segovia, and then Yuri moved to Israel. The thought of changing instruments never entered his mind, he is in love with the instrument. The only other instrument that he enjoys is the violin, admiring the amount of detail in each note, the tone, the vibrato. And in fact, he was jealous, in an admiring way, of Bach's Partitas and Sonatas for unaccompanied violin.

His heroes start with guitarists Andres Segovia and John Williams. Yuri comments that this latter has recorded everything. Later, his teacher Manuel Barrueco became a strong influence, his aesthetics, the clarity of his playing, his emphasis on the importance of technical perfection. Barrueco also conveyed to Yuri the idea that the music (melody) has to sing. Yuri feels that it is important to sing with your playing to find the best phrasing and colour. It took him a long time to understand, and he is still going through the process. He comments that you can always tell whether someone is singing with their playing, or just playing the notes.

It isn't just guitarists that Yuri admires, he also mentions the lutenist Hopkinson Smith who has recorded a lot of Bach and Weiss. Weiss only wrote for the lute, and Yuri contacted Hopkinson Smith about Weiss' lute works and Hopkinson Smith said why not play them on the lute! 

J.S Bach: Three violin sonatas - Yuri Liberzon - Laudable Records (available from Yuri Liberzon's website)

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