Daniel Pioro - maverick violinist
From performing an all-day Biber recital to naming his album after a disobedient Olympic horse, the violinist Daniel Pioro rarely steers a straight and narrow course, as Julian Haylock discovers
Daniel Pioro is no ordinary violin virtuoso. In his radical, bracingly open-minded approach to music-making, nothing is taken for granted. For him, every performance is a special event, intended to stimulate an audience’s imagination and revaluate conventional norms. ‘My parents are both visual artists,’ Pioro points out, ‘so in a sense they do what I do. They speak to me about art and creativity and risk-taking without it ever being explicitly about the violin, which is a fantastic thing because I don’t have someone telling me what they’ve achieved on the violin with the implication I should follow them in some way, as though it was a pre-ordained path. Yet we can have the same conversation I would hope to have with a musician concerning fabricating things out of sound.’
‘One of the things my parents told me from a very early age,’ he continues, ‘is that it would be better to live in the street and be true to yourself artistically than simply follow norms unquestioningly. It allowed me to query things with a greater sense of the worst-case scenario being hardly a tragedy compared to some of the devastating things that happen in the world. It’s a beautiful thing – and having realised this, there is no turning back, as this would feel like a personal betrayal. It’s a bit like going underground with a dim light – it’s bright enough to see vaguely what’s around you, but not so much that you can see exactly where you’re going. That’s the place I occupy.’
Pioro’s latest project is to perform Biber’s complete Rosary Sonatas – all 15 sonatas plus Passacaglia – in a single day (22 January) at London’s Southbank, where he is currently artist-in-residence. This is no ordinary performance, however, but one in which every parameter plays a vitally important role. ‘I’m not a religious man,’ he explains; ‘however, I have never experienced the sensation of deep faith so powerfully as when I work on this music. It’s an extraordinary conduit to devotion and belief. I felt it was important to play the sonatas on a Sunday, the traditional day of worship, and to mirror Jesus’s birth and death by performing at sunrise and sunset.
‘The plan is to perform the first five “joyful” sonatas in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at 8am, and convey a sense of wonder as the first rays of sunlight hit the river Thames. Then move to the Purcell Room in the lowest possible lighting to help create a dark and sombre atmosphere for the “sorrowful” set of five, and return to the QEH for the final “glorious” sonatas as darkness draws in. Hopefully, for those who have been with us from the start, the psychological and emotional context will feel very different this time around, free of pain and anguish. I see it as an act of total devotion to everything that is part of the Christian faith as well as a cornerstone of Western creativity.’
To create a fully immersive experience, Pioro intends to retune his violin between sonatas (each one requires a different scordatura) and, where necessary, change strings. The idea is to emphasise the crucial impact this has on the character of the instrument in each sonata. ‘If you’re going to play the sonatas properly and devotedly, it becomes a huge act of physical, emotional and intellectual devotion, especially in the middle set of five where the various tunings intentionally act against the instrument’s natural resonances, so that the sense of suffering becomes an acoustic phenomenon. This goes way beyond trying to make a “nice” sound but, conversely, opens up a range of colours on the dark side that would otherwise be impossible to obtain. I’m also intending to play the Passacaglia for solo violin, which is sometimes performed as an extra sonata. I have an idea as to where I might place it, and it will be interesting to see how many notice that it’s been performed along the way.’
Playing alongside Pioro will be James McVinnie on chamber organ, with whom he has already performed the cycle over three evenings at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. ‘This gave us a chance to experiment with intonational drones between each sonata, which provide a meditative and worshipful tool for cleansing the mind,’ Pioro reveals. ‘The idea is that it welcomes and sets the frame for each new chapter of the story, so we will also be making our own music between each of the sonatas at the Southbank. I feel this is really important because it reveals more of us to the audience – who we are as musicians and where we are coming from and going to. On a purely practical level, it also serves to reintroduce my violin into each new state – during the interludes I shall probably retune it several times in response to the newness of the sound. James on chamber organ will therefore in a sense be duetting with a new being – a new sound source – so it’s like a first time in every single moment. And the hope is that if only one person leaves with the feeling that next time they will go a little deeper with their own playing and experience, it will have been so worth it.’
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January also sees the release of Pioro’s latest album, Saint Boy, on Platoon – a dazzling programme which, ranging from Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’ Sonata to Laurence Crane’s 2020 Music, grew in part out of working on the Biber sonatas and which Pioro describes as ‘a collection of psalms and hymns, seen through the prism of a contemporary viewpoint’. When recording Saint Boy, Pioro became increasingly aware ‘of the emptiness in what I used to consider “beautiful”. In live performance, the listener receives a lot of compassion from me as a performer. What happens in the moment simply happens in the moment. However, when making a recording you have a lot more control, so when I hear a glossy new version of a piece that’s been recorded countless times, it seems like a missed opportunity. Recordings should sound different from a live concert in the very specific sense that they can potentially capture all the sounds and timbres that you have to give, rather than merely those that are dependent on where you happen to be sitting in an auditorium. A recording has to earn its existence. I always want to go deeper and push myself to the limit. We have this one life, and if we aren’t entirely true to ourselves, then who will be?’
Pioro’s probing into the nature of sound and how we create it is encapsulated in the opening ‘Devil’s Trill’ Sonata. ‘I should have taken photos of how the Tartini was recorded,’ he beams. ‘It was captured in an acoustically dead room with a whole array of mics – next to my face, under the violin, almost like a scientific set-up. The idea was to capture every tiny inflection and overtone and recreate what it is like for a fiddle-player having their ear right up against the instrument. The Tartini was my big thing of saying, “Come and sit inside the violin and be terrified with me – get excited with me.” It comes back down to curiosity, choice and why we do what we do. There is no magic for me in a concert hall sound (unless it is “live”) when I’m recording. If it is not a full sonic exploration of the instrument’s sound, I really can’t see the point. Some people will hopefully hear that and get to that place. It’s all dependent on how you engage with what’s around you. It doesn’t mean I always get it right – some of my experiments naturally work better than others but that’s a side-effect I gladly live with!’
A clue to Pioro’s artistic personality lies hidden in the album’s title – Saint Boy shares its name with a singularly determined horse at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, who during the modern pentathlon appeared to take on a mind of his own, despite his rider’s desperate attempts to control him. ‘A fragment of chaos and disobedience’ is how Pioro sees him. There’s even a self-penned track on the album dedicated to Saint Boy, whose compelling stream of consciousness encapsulates what the album is all about – musical worlds and sounds without confines that seem to reach out to the infinite. In trying to get us to listen more intently, Pioro hopes that we will overcome our natural tendency to compartmentalise everything generically and embrace the unfamiliar with vitality and exuberance.
Risk-taking, curiosity and questioning the physical matter of sound are what makes Saint Boy so special. Rather than create the impression of someone ‘out there’ being observed, protected by a sonic cushion of gentle echo, Pioro envelops us in the intimacy of his soundworld, the raw sound of bow on string, so that it becomes a vital part of the musical experience.
‘For me, impurities and imperfections are an essential part of what we do,’ Pioro explains, ‘especially as one impurity isn’t the same as another. An imperfection borne out of truth, or as the result of a particular musical phrase, or an idea, or philosophy behind something, for me ceases to be an imperfection – it’s a sound that was made as the logical conclusion of something else. The perceived beauty of perfection has ceased to be beautiful to me – it’s nice and pleasing, but that is where the beauty ends. Whereas beauty at a deeper level never stops being beautiful.’
Photo: David James Grinly
Julian Haylock is the former editor of CD Review and International Piano Magazines and reviews of CD Classics Magazine. He is also the author of biographies on Mahler, Rachmaninov and Puccini, and co-author of the Haylock and Waugh pocket guides to Classical Music on CD and Opera Music on CD.