There are faculty recitals, there are New England Conservatory faculty recitals, and then there are NEC First Monday Recitals. For 28 years NEC past-president Laurence Lesser has been showcasing his eminent colleagues and friends in free concerts at Jordan Hall. This year the theme is based on national musical impulses. Lesser told the audience that each of the pieces on the program somehow evoked the qualities of its composer’s locus. He began by apologizing for Jean-Marie Leclair’s Sonata for Two Violins in E Minor, Op. 3, No. 5. The “slight” three-movement piece, which bears the mark of the composer’s Italian idyll as much as his French heritage, received a dutiful reading from the not-entirely-warmed-up husband and wife team of Miriam Fried and Paul Biss. Considering what was to follow, a better programing choice for an opener might have been some of Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, Sz. 98, BB 104. (The father and son team of Don and Joshua Weilerstein dispatched a very lively selection thereof at their “Weilerstein Family Concert” at Jordan Hall on November 20th.) These are based on folk tunes and actually do convey a Magyar character. And despite the fact that they were intended as studies for talented children, they are also much more interesting and rewarding pieces than the Leclair.
Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937–38) came next. It somewhat better conformed to Lesser’s thematic plan. While it doesn’t feature indigenous Hungarian music, one can certainly hear the the composer’s angst over the Kingdom’s Nazi-sympathetic Fascist leaning. In a stage layout somewhat like what the composer suggested, the two pianos were placed downstage, about ten feet apart and parallel with lids removed. The percussion was placed upstage beyond the piano’s tails and was almost invisible. More often, the pianos are deployed at almost 45°, yielding a better position for the percussion kits. The lidless piano sound went straight up and was over-muddy, making a poor case for the piano as a percussion instrument.
The married pianists, Tema Blackstone and Hung-Kuan Chen, took a rather more lyrical approach than one usually hears, with a generous amount of pedaling and coloration, especially in the creepy, complex harmony of the opening. This wasn’t about brazen Bartókian hammer blows for the most part. And the blended sound of the two pianos contrasted strangely with the focused sounds from the percussion. Craig McNutt’s excellent xylophone riffs came through with startling clarity, and Daniel Bauch’s timpani sounded like a plucked double bass rather than a drum set. The second movement was the most effective. From its mysterious moonstruck opening through its Totentanz-tango alternations, danger was always lurking. All told this was a fine performance with superb ensemble interaction.
César Franck was a Belgian whom Paris adopted as a native. Did his Quintet in F minor qualify as music representative of a French national impulse? He really sounds more Franckish than French—too distinctive and too Tristan-infused—like some of the followers of his school. His queasy harmonic shape-shifting and thematic recycling are too much his own to be more generally characteristic of his national brethren. But this Quintet, premiered in 1880, was one of the most important works marking the revival of concert music in France after the Franco-Prussian War. And indeed Franck is one of the most immediately recognizable of composers, since in so many of his works does one hear echoes from the D minor Symphony and the Violin Sonata. And what a performance his Quintet received Monday night!
Fried opened with the first theme, conveying a surging romantic urgency, accompanied by Biss (second violin), Natasha Brofsky (cello), and Kim Kashkashian (viola). Pianist Alexander Korsantia entered four measures later with arpeggios and broken chords. This was a striking beginning but by the time we heard Korsantia’s big crescendo in bass octaves, it was clear that we were in for a powerhouse performance. With the piano lid back on and opened to full-stick, we finally heard tone for which Jordan Hall is famous. Korsantia is a big-boned player who can create massive sonorities without a trace of banging. He is also gifted with poetic repose and the art of Shermanesque surprise. He rarely looked at the score. We want to hear more of him.
Fried and Korsantia were the drivers of a full-throttle vehicle last night and the three other string players, fine as they were, and despite some wonderfully alert duets between Kashkashian and Brofsky, seemed merely lively passengers by comparison. What a pleasure it was to hear and watch a fully engaged Miriam Fried. She emoted, she gyrated, she led: her tempestuous interactions with Korsantia may have violated sumptuary laws, but no one complained.