Massenet’s “Thaïs” is a beautiful feat of musical drama. The opera, which premiered on March 16, 1894, is rich in its character development and Massenet’s own development as a dramatist.
While the work is filled with glorious musical writing, there is no doubt that the single most iconic moment of the work is the dramatic midpoint – Thaïs’ meditation.
Played by a solo violin, the passage is a lyrical gem that has found itself into concert halls and many recording studios. The greatest violinists in history have championed this piece, presenting their own interpretations. Here is a look at some of my personal favorites and how they illuminated us about Massenet’s glorious drama.
As you listen to Kreisler’s always aristocratic manner, you can see the smile on his face for the entirety of the piece. Who said that Thaïs was struggling throughout her meditation? Why can’t she look back at her travails and forward to her future with a big smile on her face? That is exactly what Kreisler offers us with his polished sound and charming phrasing.
If you enter an Elman recording with today’s style and standards in mind, you won’t be satisfied. But if you just let his gorgeous sound wash over you and take in every portamento and rhythmic shift, you will be entranced. He has one of the most unique sounds in the history of recorded violinists, an individual style that no one else has replicated since. His meditation is very operatic and vocal in its approach. You could almost find yourself feeling like he is another singer onstage with the freedom of his phrasing and delicacy of his line.
One of the “speedier” recordings of the piece, clocking in a just a bit over four minutes. Hassid brings his warmth of sound with a rather wide vibrato, giving the piece a truly other-worldly feel. We see a bit of a relaxation of tempo and overall feel at the epilogue, giving us a true sense of relaxation.
Be warned – this recording has suffered from awful noise reduction that hinders the overall quality. And yet through it all, we can still hear Heifetz’s brilliant phrasing, always polished and direct. As is always the case with this most elegant of fiddlers, Heifetz’s musicianship really comes together in the cohesive whole, sacrificing emphatic emotional outbursts in certain sections to create a more unified and musical whole. Unlike most recordings, where the metamorphosis is tantamount in the interpretation, Heifetz ‘s perspective makes us feel that Thaïs is already transformed, though there are niggling doubts at moments.
Imagine what a singer would sound like in this piece if it had been written for voice instead of violin. That is Nathan Milstein. In arguably the most vocal interpretation in my mind, the genius from Odessa moves a rather relaxed tempo to start the work before moving into a swifter tempo during the darker B section of the work. He heightens the drama in this manner without the need for exaggerated accents or massive musical gestures. We feel insecurity from the character of Thaïs rather than full-blown tragic challenges. It is a meditation after all and Milstein never loses sight of this.
Rabin’s tempo, his rubato, the speed of his vibrato and his accents are so perfectly employed throughout, giving the piece its arc from a nostalgic yearning to deep pain and insecurity to a final sense of rest and ease. For those that are used to more modern interpreters in this piece, be aware that their work is in many ways (without discrediting them) an imitation of Rabin’s recording, which set the standard long ago.
A delicate interpretation if there ever was one. Kogan’s tempo is somewhere in between the Heifetz and Rabin, but it feels spacious in its approach. The climactic outbursts are met with reserve, the drama possibly subdued in the interest of creating a greater sense of ease and control overall.
As far as more modern recordings, the German violinist’s rendition is right up there with the best of them. The struggle is rather intense, the vibrato growing agitated and her accent perhaps more forceful throughout than other recordings. But when it all subsides and we are left with tranquil reverie, Mutter does something no one else does at the climactic A natural harmonic. She glides up there ever so slowly, almost as if she was moving into another state of peace.