in: Reviews

March 7, 2011

Ardency from Keefe, Broader Palette from Polonsky

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Since 1966 the Pro Musicis Foundation has been presenting their laureates in engaging recitals in New York, Boston, and elsewhere. Chosen as much for their musical abilities as for their commitment to community service, the young winners have, in impressive numbers, gone on to major careers. A few of the most famous of the nearly 100 sponsored musicians include: pianists Christopher O’Riley and Robert Taub; cellists Sharon Robinson and Pamela Frame; violists Kim Kashkashian and Cynthia Phelps; violinists Peter Oundjian and Irina Muresanu; and harpists Nancy Allen and Jessica Zhou.

The March 4 concert at Longy’s Pickman Hall presented 2009 Pro Musicis International Award winner, violinist Erin Keefe, with her impressive partner, pianist Anna Polonsky, in a recital of familiar works spanning 150 years. From the opening notes of Schubert’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, op. 162 (D. 574), it was clear that Keefe was going to give us ardent playing in the grand manner with big, luscious, shapely, phrases and impeccable tone, intonation and projection. From Polonsky, we were hearing a somewhat different sound world in the allegro moderato first movement; not the most interesting in the Schubert canon, it sounded a bit austere and deferential from the very attentive pianist.

But by the scherzo second movement the roles were somewhat reversed, with the piano having the more interesting part. Polonsky remained an attentive partner while at the same time seeming to take a more dramatic approach. Yet, even with the lid open, she never overweighed the violin.

This reviewer really enjoyed watching the pianist’s face in the intensely lyrical andantino third movement. She showed great alertness to the mercurial changes of harmony and mood — telegraphing her emotions to the audience as if by semaphore. She should not play poker with such an expressive visage. Keefe, by contrast, was a bit score-bound.

The allegro vivace fourth movement evinced a wonderful sense of interplay among artists and composer. The repeats of the thematic material from the scherzo where wonderfully differentiated and there was no holding back from either player in their display of power or poignancy. By the end, one felt that there was a fine partnership.

In the Janacek Sonata Keefe’s tonal approach did not differ dramatically from her affect in the Schubert: big boned, lyrical, and ardent. By contrast, Polonsky employed a much broader palette than she had in the Schubert. Using virtuosic pedal technique with varied depth of damper pedal and subtle shifts of the una corda, she evoked a wide world of color. The duo conveyed Janacek’s contrasts between almost savage outburst and romantic longing with most effective partnership and unanimity.

In Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 4, Polonsky discovered yet another new world of sound while Keefe stuck with her romantic “grand manner” approach. Consequently, in this piece their styles did not always jell, even though the ensemble was quite perfect. Polonsky found a semi-legato tone quality and used step dynamics, reminding one of Wanda Landowska on a massive Pleyel harpsichord. Keefe’s most impressive movement was the operatic adagio, where her dramatic tone soared over Polonsky’s almost Piranesi-like counterpoint. One did get a bit tired of Keefe’s mannerism, starting almost every extended note with a straight tone before morphing into a throbbing vibrato. This reminded one of pop singers. The Bach concluded with an allegro that absolutely danced, although at times a bit too fast for clarity in the reverberant space.

For the last two pieces of the evening, a very different Erin Keefe emerged. She dispensed with her scores and frequently turned to engage her audience. She gave a singing account of the Beethoven Romance no. 2 for violin and piano with beautiful tone and spot-on production. But she reached her performing heights in the last piece — a sort of programmed encore — Sarasate’s famous Zigeunerweisen. Supported by Polonsky’s four-square “oom-pa-pa” accompaniments, Keefe became a matinee idol and an aristocrat. In this one piece she displayed more variety of tone and technical effects than she had in the rest of the evening. A screaming audience acknowledged her spectacular star turn.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer. He occasionally opines in the left column.

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