Violinist Stefan Jackiw (RL ’03) and pianist Gilles Vonsattel (RL ’99) returned to their alma mater for an electric evening of music making at the Roxbury Latin School on Tuesday evening, December 11th. The opening half of the recital — Stravinsky and Brahms — was quite simply world class, and post intermission — Liszt and Richard Strauss — didn’t disappoint, when the performers let down their hair and cranked up the volume and energy.
From the first note of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne for violin and piano to the last, six movements later, the duo was in perfect concert. This was amazing music making, as if they’ve been performing the work together for years, a synchronous marriage of styles of playing: Jackiw dancing on stage with his violin, Vonsattel providing firm footing, along with loads of color, grace, and rhythmic energy from both players. They had such fun, too. So did we in the audience.
The suite is a set of dances from Stravinsky’s earlier 1920 ballet, Pulcinella, arranged by the composer and his long-time violinist collaborator, Samuel Dushkin. With the ballet, Stravinsky begins his neo-classical “look back”, quoting music of Pergolesi and possibly some of Pergolesi’s 18th-century contemporaries. With the transcription for violin and piano fourteen years later (and a cello and piano version from 1927) Stravinsky had revisited the 18th-century, and his own earlier work.
In the Introduzione, and throughout, Jackiw’s playing floated, danced, as he himself did throughout the evening. His baroque trills sparkled but then there was just enough of a raucous hoedown feel to the work to bring it firmly into Stravinsky’s own early 20th-century. Each movement was grounded by Vonsattel’s pulsing and, where appropriate, poignant or strident piano. The finale was a tour de force of controlled energy and rhythm.
Jackiw spoke to introduce the program, acknowledging his tenure at Roxbury Latin. The last time he’d played there, he remarked, he was a student. It was also in December, during finals. He noted how much more festive it was to be playing here again before the holidays, without finals. He also offered his interpretation of the Brahms G Major Sonata, Op. 78 for piano and violin, which followed the Stravinsky. This is a late work for the composer, despite it being his first of three published works in the genre. The final movement of the sonata is based on two earlier rain-themed songs by the composer, “Regenlied,” Op. 59 no. 3, and “Nachklang,” Op. 59 no. 4, each built around a dotted rhythm motif. That motif, transformed, is also the basis of the opening theme of the first movement.
The text of the songs reinforced Jackiw in saying that he feels that Brahms, now an old man, is looking back on his life, yearning and struggling to come to terms with his loss of youth. Struggle, but no tragedy, as the work has sweet and tender resolution. That said, Jackiw intentionally avoids vibrato in the statement of the opening them — with that piercing, bright pure sound of his — avoiding any excess sentimentality, and making for wonderful contrast with the more song-like 2nd theme, the arrival of which reminded me to breath. The second movement becomes a strong centerpiece to the sonata in this duo’s interpretation, and Vonsattel’s control and concentration through to the last note of the 3rd movement was as breathtaking as his colleague’s. (I will add: Jackiw is getting great press for the recent release of his recording of all three Brahms piano and violin sonatas, with pianist Max Levinson, on Sony.)
Vonsattel introduced the 2nd half, explaining the pairing of Liszt’s Légende No. 2: “St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots” for solo piano, with Richard Strauss’s Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18. for Violin and Piano. The Légende, Vonsattel informed, a relatively mature work of the composer, is a short tone poem based on the story of St. Françis of Paola, who, as legend goes, was refused passage on a boat across the straits of Messina by a ferryman who said such a holy man should be able to walk on water. So that he did. Much of the music depicts the roiling waves of the sea. (Strauss, influenced by Liszt and known for his programmatic tone poems started work on his sonata for violin and piano at age sixteen.)
If there were one thing I might ask of Vonsattel, it would be that he allow a melodic line to float a bit more, to soar and sing over the bass. He sometimes has a reserved, introverted style for expressing melody. In the Brahms, it seemed he was just a bit deferential to the violinist. Later, in the Strauss, and even in the solo Liszt, it became apparent that this was not really the case. He gives such strong shape to his phrasing, and in fact to entire pieces through his conception of the music as well as his focus, yet there is, in this reviewer’s opinion, this holding back in projecting a melody. Yet better to crave more than want less.
There was certainly no reticence in his octaves and arpeggios during the Liszt. Impressive in every way. But I would rather have a little less shock and awe, even a little less rubato, and more of rhythmic constancy to the melodic chords, as if François de Paule (not Assisi, get it?) was undaunted in his march across and over the tumultuous sea.
With the Strauss, the two players went for broke. No bon-bons, this was a barnburner of a performance, big and Romantic in every way, with perhaps only a little Straussian charm and elegance sacrificed for sheer richness and weight. The audience loved it. We were all up in a moment, standing for the two wunderkinds who played there years back, now each a mature, albeit still young, artist. Fortunate for us that both were students at Roxbury Latin, so we could hear them perform together. Here’s hoping we’ll have opportunity to hear them collaborate many more times on a variety of stages.