in: Reviews

July 18, 2011

Technique to Burn, But No Fire

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It might seem a bit geographically counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to beat the heat in Boston is to head south. On July 17, with Boston at 91 degrees and heading up, we trekked to Newport, Rhode Island for a perfect summer day in the low-to-mid 80s, capped by an evening of cool ocean breezes wafting through the Great Hall at The Breakers, Newport’s grandest “summer cottage” of the Gilded Age. At this venue, one of the most visually stunning concert rooms anywhere, we caught violinist Livia Sohn and pianist Bernadene Blaha in a Newport Music Festival program of works by Adams, Beethoven, and Franck. Sohn is a Newport regular, this being her fourteenth consecutive season. Her collaborator is a Canadian native currently teaching primarily at USC. Both are veterans of the international festival circuit and are performing several times (though not together again) at NMF.

They opened with what is in effect John Adams’s only violin sonata to date, a three-movement work called Road Movies. On his website Adams admits that the title is entirely whimsical and, if it has any relationship to the music, it is in the kind of steady driving rhythms largely given to the piano, into which he has composed an element of swing (see more on this below). Adams has written very little chamber music; his explanation is that it took him a long time to get his mind wrapped around the melodically-infused “democratic” spirit of the genre, whereas his principal concerns have always been with massed sonorities. You can get his whole program note for the piece here, as NMF, in its massive season program book, could find no room for program notes for anything. Road Movies has also been recorded, but only once, by Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek.

A key element in the outer movements is the application of swing. In fact, the last movement is entitled “40% swing,” in jocular reference to the fine gradations electronic instruments can apply to even as quintessentially personal and emotional a matter as rubato. The work as a whole bristles with Adams’s characteristic energy. The first movement begins with a running-note piano line, to which the movement’s title, “relaxed groove” ostensibly applies, but in which we detected little relaxation. Against this Adams sets up a violin line that is motivic rather than melodic in the conventional sense, based on a rising second. Sohn played it brusque and rough, maximizing the contrast very effectively. Adams has never been a true minimalist, and his repeated patterns here are laced with development and complexity. We would have liked to hear more power and projection from both players; Sohn was clearly giving it all the muscle she had, but it came across as a bit thin, while Blaha was hampered, we suspect, by the rather blocky and dull-sounding Yamaha NMF provided. (Really, in this setting, couldn’t someone have found an 1890s Steinway or Mason & Hamlin?) Sohn ended the movement, though, with a dramatically soft and thrillingly silken harmonic, which we wonder if the folks at the back of the room could even hear.

The slow movement, “meditative” (the published score apparently actually says “contemplative”) begins with a piano lick that recalls the blues movement of Barber’s Excursions, which the scordatura violin then picks up, spinning it into phrases always ending on a sustained note. Both performers here were into it, with Sohn supplying ample bluesy portamento. The finale, we confess, did not strike us as particularly swung. There were plenty of accent shifts, and a charming moto perpetuo feel to the fast bits, and yet another evocation (we really didn’t have this in mind when we came in) of Excursions, this time of the concluding barn dance. It ends with Adams’s typical abruptness, although this time we think he pulled his punch a bit. The music is evidently fearsomely difficult, and in all technical respects Sohn and Blaha were spot on all the way.

Closing the first half was that most mercurial of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, No. 9 in A major, op. 47, the Kreutzer, which Beethoven originally wrote for an English violinist who played it badly (not his fault — he had to sight-read the premiere!) and ultimately dedicated to an Austrian violinist who hated it and never played it at all. It is a wild ride, indeed, though how much of its modern popularity owes to Tolstoy’s name-stealing novella we can’t tell. (If the lovers had been performing the Spring Sonata, would the Kreutzer be played more often than any of the others?) Beethoven somewhat dismissively called it a “mulatto” sonata, and a sonata in the style of a concerto. Most of you know it well enough that we can truncate our description, but you can of course download the score and even listen to a recording here if you don’t own one already. As to the Sohn-Blaha performance, the players provided a basically straightforward reading that only took off with more than standard nuance in the finale. Again, they were both clearly working hard, and there were certainly no technical defects, but it didn’t seem as though they were fully prepared to revel in Beethoven’s craziness. We wish we could be more helpful in specifying just what was missing — apart from the thinness of Sohn’s sound and the clunkiness and lack of brilliance in the piano itself, coupled with a certain sameness in Blaha’s dynamics. Bottom line, they did not set the night on fire.

photo by Nathaniel Koven

The Kreutzer can certainly stand to be the closer in any violin recital, but this time around the players devoted the second part of the program to César Franck’s popular and only Violin Sonata in A major, M.8. Their approach to the first movement, marked “Allegretto ben moderato” (how noncommittal can you get?) was to focus on its dreaminess, which is a perfectly good thing to do; at times the dreamy seemed a bit more like wan (we’re not talking primarily about dynamics here, but about fullness and roundness of tone), especially in the anacruses to the principal tune. The second movement has an extravagantly difficult piano part, which Blaha negotiated deftly but without enough stress on the melody notes — again, not necessarily her fault. Sohn also did very well here with Franck’s tortuous chromaticism, which produces probably the most zigzag path ever invented to a phrase that ends conventionally in diatonic D minor. The third movement, which Franck called a “recitative: fantasia,” demands, as it suggests, a maximum of freedom to realize its cadenza-like reverie. Sohn brought to it a grand intensity and both players seemed in this movement to have gotten fully inside the music, and vice versa.

The finale is a bit of a cheat on the composer’s part. With all the chromatic squirming of the inner movements, and a good part of the first (is this what Leonard Bernstein meant when he decried “tonal mush”?), for the finale he devised a simple diatonic tune (and a great one it is), which he treats mostly diatonically in a sonata-rondo, indeed the only memorable tune. Although it is a charming and relatively simple construct, it is not a lark. It seemed a bit too much like one in this performance, except for the reminiscences of the slow movement. Maybe Sohn and Blaha downplayed the main theme to enhance the contrast with these other passages, but if so the gambit miscued. Overall, this was a very good, but not a great, performance, an observation we could extend to the whole program. In other words, it was what we suspect the NMF audience came to hear, as evidenced by its enthusiastic response, quite enough to engender an encore, which was Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of Manuel Ponce’s charming 1912 song Estrellita, charmingly rendered.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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