Midori is a violin diva without any noticeable trace of a diva complex. Her technical and emotive gifts need no further parsing here. Her willingness to appear in a sonata program with Turkish-American pianist Özgür Aydin as a full and equal partner testifies to her complete security as an artist and her comfort as advocate for those composers (Beethoven in this case) whose sonatas place the piano first and the violin second. It wasn’t until hearing the pair of encores which concluded the afternoon that I even thought about Midori as a celebrity.
On Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, Midori stood behind the keyboard, rarely looking back at her attentive partner Aydin who had to crane his neck to see her bow. That said, the coordination between these two artists seemed preternaturally compleat. Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major, Op. 12 No. 2 decidedly gives the leading role to the piano, and with the full stick Aydin produced colorful and well-differentiated tones, alert to the slyness of Beethoven’s wit. Midori seemed to know when Beethoven asked her for mere filigree. In the Andante second movement Midori projected delicacy, nobility and repose even when she was in the accompanimental role. In the Allegreto piacevole final movement the violin gave fierce off-beat accents in response to the piano’s bold statements. This was great chamber music, not just a violin recital.
Webern’s Four Pieces, Op. 7 was a questionable choice for a Celebrity Series event in Symphony Hall, since most of the piece is pp or ppp with very occasional fff outbursts. It certainly had all of the composer’s Innigkeit and ultra-distillation of his pithy thoughts, but it hardly pleased the crowd. One also wonders just how much of the music penetrated the nether reaches of the hall. There were many dropping seats in this number—29 in the course of the entire concert, though most in this piece and the Crumb.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 30, No. 1 closed the first half. The opening Allegro had a clarity that was remarkable considering the lightning tempo. The middle Adagio movement had the quality of a bel canto love duet, but the boy never lost the girl in this romance. Both players seemed quiet and reposeful in their miens, ostensibly indifferent to the full house. There was a striking purity and elegiac quality of sound. In the Allegretto con variazione finale, we overheard a lively conversation among two great artists and the composer, with sly surprises in abundance even though neither performer’s face particularly mirrored his or her thoughts.
After intermission George Crumb’s Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) began with much confusion. Why was Aydin crawling under the piano and seeming to repair it? Answer: he had started the performance, though no one realized it. Crumb’s concern seemed once again to be with very quiet sounds and subtle colorations and effects. Aydin, plucked, strummed, pounded, seemingly played the pedals with his hands and even struck some notes in the conventional manner from the apparently un-prepared piano. Midori played her part without much enthusiasm. But I have to hand it to Crumb, not only did he make Webern sound like a sumptuary, but he also seemed to provide a quiet and sympathetic background for the restless crowd noises which included ill-fitting false teeth, more chair drops and even a fair amount of eating and drinking.
What the crowd was waiting for was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, op. 47,“Kreutzer.” After the profound piano opening, when the first theme comes to the violin, it was clear that Midori was dropping her mask. She now commanded the stage with some swagger. Her body language was bold and her tone more dominating, yet in the reflective counter-melody she produced a poignance that was overwhelming. The audience could not resist applauding at the conclusion of the first movement. The Andante con variazione second movement had wonderful tempo surprises and reversals of roles. Many of the softer variations came across as very cultured pearls rather than brilliant stones, though. The last movement was brilliant and exciting— more about fire than refinement, finally bringing the audience to its feet.
It’s worth noting that although Midori’s name has never faded from notice here, this was her first Celebrity Series recital since 2001. During those intervening years she was of course concertizing, teaching, writing and serving the larger world community in myriad ways. But what she also did during this time was to earn her master’s degree in psychology. That fact raises this rhetorical question: why did Midori and pianist Özgür Aydin not acknowledge one another in their curtain calls? There was neither hug nor handshake.
The two encores gave us the grand manner violinist that we had not heard earlier. She dispensed with her scores and gave us a reflective Girl with the Flaxen Hair of Debussy (arranged by Hartmann) with drop-dead gorgeous tone from her Guanerius del Gesù (ex-Huberman) and then an infectiously outgoing Tambourin Chinois of Kreisler.