By Lenny Cavallaro
Methuen, MA, USA

I have heard many wonderful recordings over the decades, so it is always a welcome surprise when I am truly moved by an artist with whom I was previously unfamiliar. I had that experience with the YouTube performances of baroque violinist Anaïs Chen, and my comments about them are a matter of public record. I was absolutely delighted to catch up with Anaïs and discuss various projects, both her own and those of her ensembles, Duo L’Istante and Ensemble Daimonion.

Anaïs Chen

LENNY CAVALLARO: Perhaps we can begin with a discussion of your most recent recording: the Bach Sonatas for Violin and Clavier, which are certainly monumental in the development of chamber music for the two instruments.

ANAÏS CHEN: Absolutely. They are among the most complicated pieces I have ever studied. Above and beyond the technical challenges, the music is truly interwoven among what are effectively three voices. It’s as though the two musicians actually perform three parts, since the harpsichord plays both the accompanying continuo part and its own melodic voice. The complexity is heightened, because as soon as one performer takes even the slightest freedom or initiative, the other must be extremely aware, know exactly what is going on, and make the appropriate adjustments. Thus, these six sonatas are far more challenging than his sonatas with only the continuo, which were far more common before Bach. In fact, in some ways they are even more difficult than his unaccompanied partitas and sonatas.

J.S. Bach – Sonate Nr. 3 obbligato in E-Dur für Violine & Cembalo – Violine: Anaïs Chen, Cembalo: Alexandra Ivanova

LENNY CAVALLARO: Really? How so?

ANAÏS CHEN: When one is playing with one or more colleagues, one may have moments of spontaneity, and with the Bach sonatas these can be effective only if both performers are listening very carefully to one another, poised to respond appropriately.

LENNY CAVALLARO: I understand. I think that’s the sort of thing we see more with truly skillful baroque performance. It’s the intensity with which one needs to listen, since with a style so concerned with articulation and phrasing, if one player does something with an important motif, the other must usually answer accordingly.

ANAÏS CHEN: Absolutely! Moreover, the harpsichordist must sometimes almost split into two performers, where one hand takes some rhythmic liberties, while the other is somewhat more steady. Then there are the ensemble problems. For but one example, in the F-sharp minor movement [third movement of the A Major sonata – ed.] we did not feel the freedom of motion the same way initially, so we had to try it again to resolve our differences and determine what we wanted to take out of the music.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Which you did most successfully. I also like what you said, because with baroque pieces, we really don’t put expression into the music, but must instead think in terms of “taking it out.” This can indeed be very difficult. However, as one who takes so much out of these sonatas, do you have a favorite?

ANAÏS CHEN: I have favorite movements: for example, the opening of the E Major.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Ah, that long line, which only Bach could have written. For me, it’s the opening of the B minor.

ANAÏS CHEN: Yes, that one, also. In fact, I love most of the slow movements.

LENNY CAVALLARO: When will you record the solo works?

ANAÏS CHEN: I’ve performed some, not all of them, and recorded only a few movements.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Notably, the Adagio of the G Minor, which is exquisite, and the famous “Chaconne” from the D Minor is on your website.

ANAÏS CHEN: Nevertheless, I would need to “isolate” myself to prepare for such an undertaking.

J.S. Bach – "Adagio" from Sonata I in G Minor for Solo Violin – Anaïs Chen

LENNY CAVALLARO: Well, I hope you do, based on what I’ve heard. Of course, certain works for solo violin are simply “monumental” by any standard, and I would place those six unaccompanied Bach compositions and the Paganini Capricci in that elite category.

However, that project leads us to another topic. While your Bach – on period instrument – is absolutely gorgeous, your true passion seems to be music from the late Renaissance/early baroque, which is even less familiar to the public. I must say your Palestrina/Rognoni moved me immensely. “Io son ferito” (“I am wounded”) is the Palestrina madrigal. Did Rognoni actually write out all those marvelous – and totally violinistic – embellishments?

ANAÏS CHEN: This one is actually written out in his treatise. It was presented as an example of how to engage in this practice with art and mastery, but one can also learn to do so on one’s own.

Francesco Rognoni was not the only one who wrote a treatise. Bovicelli, Dalla Casa, Riccardo Rognoni (Francesco’s uncle), and Silvestro Ganassi all explained the art of “diminution.” Ganassi’s, which is the earliest (1535), presented truly complicated rhythmic patterns, including quintuplets and septuplets. The complexity of these figurations leads us to believe they had probably been in practice in the oral tradition for many years before Ganassi wrote them down in his first treatise, since they had evolved so extensively.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Fascinating. I would have assumed they used only duple- or triple-meter figurations: 3, 4, 6, 8, etc. We don’t generally see septuplets until the 20th century.

Of course, I’m also most impressed by the remarkable improvisation itself. It is clearly a lost art. I expect the performer (violin, oboe, or other) to embellish around what I have written, sometimes spontaneously. However, only those trained in and comfortable with baroque improvisation can do so. Similarly, in performance today – particularly in recording – we see far more of the metronomic precision, and far less willingness to take chances.

ANAÏS CHEN: I totally agree. I think the public will notice if the musicians are taking risks, and in a live concert they really appreciate those moments when something unique is happening.

LENNY CAVALLARO: True, although it doesn’t win competitions. Nevertheless, I’m far more interested in what the performer has to convey, what he/she projects, and what is taken out of this music. When I performed, I always hoped someone in the audience had been moved emotionally, and when I attended a concert, I wanted to be moved to tears myself. Even if the performance itself is less than technically flawless, the “magic” can occur.

ANAÏS CHEN: Exactly. It’s all about communication. I really enjoy those special moments, and it is a true triumph when a few people come up after a concert and tell me how much they were touched by the performance.

Anaïs Chen

LENNY CAVALLARO: Unfortunately, no discussion of “performances” can evade the essential question of today’s concert halls and the programs usually offered in them. You are very passionate about this late Renaissance, early baroque music. Unfortunately, many people assume music more or less began with Bach. This is utter nonsense; without his predecessors, there would have been no Bach! Is there anything you think might help audiences grow to appreciate it? Of course, one should immediately note that most people might not “understand” this music, but how many people truly “understand” the late Beethoven string quartets or Bach’s Art of the Fugue? These masterpieces are monumentally difficult, yet they are occasionally programmed – certainly far more than the music you most love.

ANAÏS CHEN: I’ve spoken with concert directors, who seem impressed by the work we do yet insist that because their audiences are too conservative, they simply cannot program anything so unusual. Thus, what my colleagues and I are trying to do is simply to make this music more popular by sharing it on the Internet. We are in the process of preparing more videos, in the hope that over time a broader audience will come to appreciate this repertoire. I didn’t know anything about this art before I began to study early music and period instruments. The first step is just to get the music “out there” and hopefully better known by people (especially concert organizers). If and when they begin to appreciate its beauty, they will be more willing to hear it in concert and program it! It’s a little better in Italy, because it’s part of their heritage, but even here it’s rare. It also helps to present it in the beautiful church of San Martino a Luco, near Poggibonsi, Tuscany.

LENNY CAVALLARO: That must be a wonderful place to perform, record, and listen. You have made a truly audacious leap into the early baroque, especially with such magnificent recordings as “Io son ferito.” Surely this music should be heard, so are there other reasons why we find resistance on the part of organizers to program such repertoire?

ANAÏS CHEN: Unfortunately, while some performers are truly committed to the early styles, we also find those who have become involved more out of convenience than genuine dedication to and love of the art. Sadly, because people are not so familiar with – and generally don’t even know – the repertoire, they do not always choose the best performances and recordings, and thus may be less than enthusiastic about what they hear.

LENNY CAVALLARO: That’s disappointing.

ANAÏS CHEN: However, it’s quite true for the entire period. We have some musicians who play only baroque repertoire, but clearly fall short of contemporary professional standards. We also have those who are actually well-educated but have been in too much of a hurry to declare themselves “baroque specialists,” and have ended up playing even worse on the period instrument than they would on contemporary ones. These performers don’t really comprehend how older instruments were supposed to be played and would surely have better results if they continued to use modern ones. As we can see, it’s not merely the instrument after all, but one’s overall approach to the music.

LENNY CAVALLARO: I’ve certainly heard some disappointing performances on period instruments, and I’m sure they’ve done little to encourage new audiences. However, I suspect a larger factor is your comment about how many concert organizers are simply reluctant to program works with which the audiences are almost totally unfamiliar. People know Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, so it’s “safe” to have an orchestra and soloists perform them, even on period instruments. But something like the Palestrina/Rognoni may seem too risky. And in fairness, concert managers tend to be rather “conservative” in the classical sense: “resistant to change.” It’s the nature of the beast.

Anaïs Chen

ANAÏS CHEN: However, there is so much to discover about earlier music, and it is important that we do so. For those who are skeptical, I should add that this early music greatly expands our understanding of the glorious late baroque music that followed it. From these works we can learn so much more about instrumental technique, sound production, ornamentation, general aesthetics, notation – and remember that many things were not notated, or else notated in a different manner than the one with which we are familiar.

Moreover, we are fortunate to have some instrumental and diminution treatises. These demonstrate how a lot of ornamentation was added to the actual, rather blank score. They also present articulation and phrasing in painstaking detail, imitating as much as possible good singers who are delivering a text expressively and with clear pronunciation. This information is important, and without it, performers simply cannot understand significant parts of the music. And even after all that, we are left with what I call “personal gaps,” which we can fill in only by practicing on period instruments (or modern copies of period instruments). With these we learn many things that are not in the treatises, and which must be discovered by actually playing. Indeed, I fell completely in love with baroque violin the first time I handled one. Even though it was a rather poor instrument, I was immediately able to gain insight as to why I had struggled so much even with the music of Mozart, to say nothing of compositions written earlier. On a modern instrument, I simply could not do what I wanted to do, yet on a baroque violin, everything felt natural.

Keeping all this in mind, I am trying to present programs that include not only the familiar – those famous and well-known composers – but also some of the less familiar. It is important to realize that the “giants,” as we perceive them, did not emerge out of nothing. Moreover, those masters who composed before Bach are by no means “inferior.” We can find exquisite art long before Bach and Handel.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Indeed, and in a way, that statement invites the question about baroque art long after those two giants. Have you perhaps worked with some contemporary composers who wrote for period instruments, including violin?

ANAÏS CHEN: Yes! On my website, look at Io Sono un Fumo. The composer, Caspar Johannes Walter, wrote for our instruments, set in mean-tone [a different system of tuning than contemporary “twelve-tone equal temperament” ed.] and then expanded so that he could use microtones [as opposed to normal pitch intervals – ed.]. We performed the piece without scores, and the musicians were acting, or more accurately engaged in pantomime.

LENNY CAVALLARO: That short video clip is definitely something else. However, the music is clearly in the contemporary idioms. Have you worked with any composers who write in baroque style?


LENNY CAVALLARO: Perhaps another day. Meanwhile, you are recording extensively.

ANAÏS CHEN: Yes. The first recording was with Daimonion: Discorsi delle Comete, which is available through my website. I like this repertoire, and the CD shows a vast range of styles. There are also some “diminutions”: one arranged by us in the style of Francesco Rognoni; one written by my colleague, Andrea Inghisciano, in the style of Ganassi. I must mention that Andrea, who is also an extraordinary cornetto player, has very much influenced my understanding of early baroque style and above all improvised diminution practice. Diminution – the ornamentation of that period – entails breaking down the longer notes into shorter ones (as embellishments). The CD also has some sonatas and canzonas that ignored many of the “old” rules of strict Renaissance counterpoint and created a spectacular “new” style, full of harsher contrasts and formerly unthinkable dissonant freedom, which could be justified only by enhancing expressiveness.

Daimonion: Daniel Rosin, Soma Salat-Zakariás, Anaïs Chen, María González, Adrian Rovatkay, Andrea Inghisciano
Next was Cercar la Voce, a Duo L’Istante release with harpsichordist Johannes Keller, which is also available through my website. As the title suggests, it includes works that derive directly from vocal repertoire or have at least some connection with it. It is especially interesting to hear because of the marvelous selections, ranging from Palestrina to Tartini, and it even includes the Bach “Chaconne.” I use both my early and high baroque violin, and the harpsichordist used two instruments, also.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Then came another ambitious CD with Daimonion: works by Francois Francoeur, with Maria Gonzalez at harpsichord and Daniel Rosin at cello.

ANAÏS CHEN: Yes, we did six of the twelve accompanied sonatas by Francoeur, and garnered a prize [the Diapason d’Or – ed.]. Of course, he’s not a well-known composer, but I find Francoeur very personal and unique. His sonatas are really nice and quite challenging for violinists and deserve to be heard more. He also presents an interesting mix of styles and influences between the French and Italian, in this case with Corelli.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Of course, these are all accompanied by harpsichord and cello?

ANAÏS CHEN: Yes, the basso continuo, and the cello part is really quite important, so I’m happy we had such a wonderful baroque performer as Daniel Rosin. However, we certainly didn’t use cello when we recorded the six Bach works, a two-CD set released in 2018, which is also available through my website.

LENNY CAVALLARO: I immediately noticed the wonderful balance between you and yet another harpsichordist, Alexandra Ivanova. In fact, I don’t believe I have ever heard such a fine dynamic blend.

ANAÏS CHEN: Thank you. It is often a challenge to achieve this type of balance. Many times in concerts one really cannot understand what is happening contrapuntally, simply because one is unable to hear the harpsichord lines clearly, particularly in the middle registers. The acoustics are also a factor, and that is why we decided against the church and recorded instead inside a studio room with wooden floors.

We also tried to emphasize the articulation and phrasing, and the phrasing included passages in which each of us might want to enjoy some freedom and take certain liberties (when we could). Of course, it is essential in baroque performance that one must never get too mechanical, and I hope this can be heard, particularly in the slow movements.

Anaïs Chen

LENNY CAVALLARO: I understand you have other recording projects scheduled for summer, also. Will these be early baroque or more Bach?

ANAÏS CHEN: Both. We are going to record the Monteverdi Vespers and all six Brandenburg Concerti with Il Gusto Barocco from Stuttgart (Germany), under the direction of Jörg Halubek, with whom I enjoy working a lot.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Best of fortune with both! You have recorded with three harpsichordists. This must present some challenges as well, since all performers are different, and while you may have a certain approach with one, the experience may be quite different when you play with another.

ANAÏS CHEN: Oh, yes; the three all have their own ideas, and the strengths of one are not necessarily the strengths of the other. However, I rather like the idea of “variety” in music. Of course, when we go for some months without working together, we may have some difficulties feeling and hearing the music together initially, but we can usually find our ways fairly quickly.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Maria Gonzalez is the harpsichordist in Daimonion. Please tell me a little more about that ensemble.

ANAÏS CHEN: We met at the Schola Cantorum in Basel and wanted to create our own group. We work primarily in the early Baroque to high Baroque periods [roughly 1600-1750 – ed.] in groups ranging from duets or trios up to small chamber orchestra size, though with only one to a part. Maria, Daniel, Andrea, and I form the core, and then others join us depending upon what instruments are needed. Daimonion derives from Socrates’ daemon, the tutelary spirit to whom he spoke when he had to make important decisions. I love the idea in the sense of following our “inner voice” when making music.

LENNY CAVALLARO: You also mentioned a very different sort of “inner voice,” a project for three: unaccompanied violin, dancer, and light technician.

ANAÏS CHEN: Yes, we would like to try that at some future time. However, we did do something similar with six musicians and two dancers. We even have a video clip on my website.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Meanwhile, you’re back in the baroque period in which you specialize. Do you have any desire to move beyond that period?

ANAÏS CHEN: Yes. In fact, I have played some of the classical repertoire with fortepiano, and I should actually love to go even a little further into the early romantic period. However, this becomes more difficult, because the fortepiano is much more expensive to move than the harpsichord.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Ah, yes. I interviewed Christina Kobb, who is really an early-19th century specialist. She recently gave her New York debut, but somewhat reluctantly had to play on a modern piano, rather than a fortepiano. Still, from all her work with the older instrument, she was so familiar with its limitations, and thus she had a better idea of what the composers must have had in mind.

I think there is another, perhaps greater lesson here. Too many musicians play almost everything the same way, and they fail to realize that we cannot always use the same approach to music. Similarly, they forget how much we have to learn. Without having studied diminution, I could look at the score of that gorgeous Palestrina madrigal – not that I would want to play it on piano – and I could probably ornament it in the style of Bach. However, that would also be hopelessly wrong, no matter how Bach-like I succeeded in making it! It’s simply a different art.

ANAÏS CHEN: True, and that makes it so very interesting. It’s like entering a relationship with a new world. We cannot reproduce this music “exactly” as it was played in the late 1500s or early 1600s, but that’s not the point. We try to perform it stylistically, though, and also find a way to relate to the music within this context and determine what is important and what is not. Obviously, we cannot use the same parameters for all music. In some ways this is like learning a new language. One language may have structures that simply don’t exist in others.

LENNY CAVALLARO: It would be wonderful if you could wave a magic wand and create more of a market for your art, but we must also begin by admitting that classical music itself has its difficulties, and I think much of the blame lies with the harsh, dissonant, non-melodic music that most contemporary composers have offered us, and which audiences really don’t like. The antithesis, of course, is found in the “usual fare,” those old war-horses, great though they may be, that are played over and over. So much wonderful music is sadly neglected, if not consigned to oblivion altogether. We can see the importance of this music, how much it teaches us, and how much the treatises that explain how this music is to be performed can teach us.

ANAÏS CHEN: Indeed, and after that we have to put ourselves into the music and interpret it. What do we take out of this music? How can we re-create it, in the sense of executing and actualizing it in the present moment of the performance? That is what is so marvelous about being a musician. One can develop a relationship with the audience and also with the composition. This is the ultimate communication. We have to open our minds and ask ourselves, “What is music really all about?” Sometimes in the concert hall, with the business and the critics, this is lost, and people think only about the technique.

LENNY CAVALLARO: The athleticism!

ANAÏS CHEN: Look at cultures where music is an element of rituals. Technique, if we want to speak about it as an isolated aspect, is only meant as a vehicle that enables us to express ourselves, not as a goal in itself. A good musician is one who can move the listener emotionally, even spiritually. Similarly, some baroque musicians get “lost” in the treatises and forget the music. However, sometimes we can make the music a truly moving experience, and we must strive to do so. That is my goal!

LENNY CAVALLARO: This dedicated artist is absolutely correct. We “feel” these things so rarely, but when we do, it is absolutely marvelous. I encourage readers to become better acquainted with both Anaïs Chen and the wonderful world of early baroque music she so bravely champions.

(Anaïs Chen photo credits: Martin Chiang; Michael Novak)

Anaïs Chen    

Lenny Cavallaro    


Lenny Cavallaro edited and revised Paganini’s Fire by Ann Abelson.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.