in: Reviews

October 10, 2011

Ilya Kaler’s Mastery at TBC’s Seully Hall

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The Boston Conservatory presented violinist Ilya Kaler in recital with pianist Janice Weber on Sunday, October 9, 2011 in Seully Hall as part of the Conservatory’s String Masters Series. Kaler, now a professor of violin at Chicago’s DePaul University School of Music, hails from Moscow and remains the only violinist to have won gold medals at all three of the Paganini, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky competitions. Running almost two hours in length, the recital showcased Kaler’s mastery of both violin and bow in a program spanning music of the last two hundred years.

The recital began with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96. From the decisive opening trill of the Allegro moderato, Kaler demonstrated his command of instrument and music. The Adagio espressivo was marked by a singing line, beginning at a slow simmer and building in intensity as the movement progressed. The Scherzo, Allegro and Trio were restrained—not the comedic, playful scherzi of symphonic Beethoven. The finale (Poco allegretto) was marked by studied interplay between Kaler and Weber, violin and piano coalescing themes into a unified sonata. Kaler offered up a stately, formal sonata, very much an example of classical Beethoven.

From 1812 we jumped forward in time to 1946 and Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1 in f, Op. 80. Kaler deployed a wide range of tone and color in the bleak, harsh tonalities and rhythms of the opening Andante assai and the Allegro brusco. In contrast, the soaring melodies that followed were achingly tender. The Andante with its tranquil, flowing notes recalled the earlier Beethoven—but such a very different sound-world, pointing to an abyss of darkness and sadness. Kaler traced this arc very effectively, drawing a torrent of sound from his violin and at times drowning out Weber on the Steinway. The final Allegrissimo danced rapidly along, oscillating between manic and sardonic. No doubt we are now overly attuned to the political dimensions of twentieth-century Russian classical music and the fraught lives of the composers; still, by the conclusion of Kaler’s reading of the sonata I had the distinct sense of having survived a harrowing tragedy of great magnitude.

After intermission, a jump back in time to 1886 brought Franck’s Sonata for Violin in A, written for Eugène Ysaÿe. This sonata is a “cyclic” work, each movement sharing thematic ideas, here heard clearly in their iterations and reiterations. It is also a work marked by frequent modulation, and Kaler never faltered on this shifting harmonic terrain. The Allegro ben moderato and Allegro movements were marked by a lush sensuality, by passion as well as fire. The Recitativo fantasia proffered a combination of lamentation and laughter as it meditated on earlier musical ideas. Here and in the finale (Allegretto poco mosso), Kaler effectively mastered the difficult art of maintaining blinding intensity across long musical phrases, sometimes spanning several minutes. After memorably dispatching this challenging sonata, Kaler concluded the recital with Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccio (1863). With the collaboration of Weber, he tossed off this showstopping work as though it were a brief bagatelle–which it most assuredly is not.

The interpretation ranged from formal to fiery, the music spanned sonatas and bravura-piece. Throughout Ilya Kaler played with certitude and conviction, luxuriant phrases yielding to rapid volleys of notes executed with a bow barely discernible through the blur of the violinist’s arm. His sound retained the darkness that is a hallmark of violinists of the so-called “Russian school.” (Kaler’s physical attitude toward the instrument testifies to his training in this genealogy of violin technique). I was pleased to note a full house for this concert, the more to experience first-hand this master of the violin.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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