ST. PETERSBURG — Maria Bachmann looks perfectly normal, a pretty blond in a blue dress, but something happens when she plays her violin.
Bachmann's recital Sunday afternoon at the Marly Room of the Museum of Fine Arts was a study in contrasts between her mild, almost wistful demeanor and the ferocity of her music. It was like she was undergoing some tempestuous, intensely personal experience — in the Enescu Sonata No. 3 in particular — and the only way she could express it was through her violin playing.
Bachmann, with the excellent pianist Natalie Zhu, got the program off to a stylish start with Ravel's one-movement Sonata, completed in 1897 but not discovered until 1975, long after the composer's death. The shimmering tone colors of the piano were instantly recognizable as Ravel, and Bachmann sounded like the rightful heir to another great musical Frenchman, Stephane Grappelli, with her elegant jazz fiddle playing.
Before Bachmann plunged into a wild and woolly Chaconne transcribed from John Corigliano's Oscar-winning score to The Red Violin, she gave the audience a little plot synopsis of the movie. It's about a 17th- century violin maker who mixes the blood of his beloved late wife into the varnish of an instrument that takes on a hauntingly beautiful sound down through the centuries.
"I can guarantee you that no violin maker ever puts blood in the varnish,'' said Bachmann, whose 1782 Gagliano violin produces a big, gorgeous sound of its own.
The Corigliano was full of emotional turbulence, building from languid violin phrasing over brooding piano chords to Bachmann's incredibly rapid passagework. In the end, this strenuous tour de force came crashing down to an abrupt halt that left me stunned.
With her dramatic style, Bachmann more than holds her own against Joshua Bell, who played the violin solo for the movie and recorded the Red Violin Concerto, whose first movement is the Chaconne. She recorded the Chaconne on her 2007 CD The Red Violin for Endeavour Classics and has the concerto in her repertoire.
Enescu was Romania's most important 20th-century composer as well as a brilliant violinist, and his Third Sonata casts quite a spell, reminiscent of a Paganini showpiece with its fearsome demands.
Zhu laid down the foundation of a simple, repetitive pattern in the piano, while Bachmann launched into all sorts of pyrotechnics, from keening sweetness to high, squealing licks to gypsy dance rhythms to jagged pizzicato. The frantic finish was positively orgasmic.
The second half of the program was taken up with what Bachmann called the "real meat and potatoes,'' the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3. She and Zhu performed it with poise and assurance, especially the second movement, an exquisite Adagio, creating an atmosphere of sublime warmth that was soon to be shattered by one last virtuosic outburst in the passionate finale.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.