Stefan Jackiw left no doubt, after his Sunday recital at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that traversed all three violin sonatas of Brahms, that he is an international sensation. Ably abetted by pianist Anna Polonsky—the term “collaborative piano” has to have been invented to describe the keyboard parts for Brahms’s solo sonatas for other instruments—Jackiw put on quite a show for those who forwent a beautiful fall afternoon for the confines of the nearly full house. Jackiw did not, however, entirely close the sale with us, for reasons, which, it must be said, have virtually nothing to do with technique, as both Jackiw and Polonsky are world-class performers; the only problems are presentational; but they do warrant notice.
The Brahms sonatas, all of them mature works by the “poet of regret,” in Michael Steinberg’s arresting phrase, are dear to Jackiw’s heart—he has recorded the set with pianist Max Levinson, to no little acclaim, and seems to perform one or another of them on all his recitals. In setting up the program for Sunday, he and Polonsky made the very sensible choice to put Nos. 2 (in A major, op. 100) and 3 (in D minor, op. 108) before intermission, saving No. 1 in G major, op. 78, for the end. While all three sonatas are supreme masterpieces, No. 2 is probably the least performed and is somewhat comparable, in mood and pacing, to No. 1, whereas No. 3 is, relatively speaking, the virtuoso barnburner. So: high marks for intelligent programming.
Having said that the G major and A major sonatas are similar, we must backtrack a little to add that the A major is both brighter and more outgoing in character. The middle movement, in an alternating slow-fast chorus and verse format, invokes elements of Czech or Hungarian dance forms. Like the G major, this sonata quotes from material Brahms had also used in songs (to say nothing of what some have heard as a quote from Die Meistersinger in the main theme of the first movement), adding to its overall lyrical appeal.
When Jackiw and Polonsky performed in Rockport a few months ago, we took exception to a certain affectedness in Jackiw’s comportment and in the dynamic shaping of his phrasing (see here). As a testament to the power of the press and our incisive analysis, we can report that absolutely nothing has changed about that. From a strangely crouched position, Jackiw began this sonata with an exaggerated delicacy that both underplayed its serenity and strained the balance between the instruments. During the chatter at intermission, we overheard some audience members complain that Polonsky had been playing too loudly; from where we sat it seemed, since in many other passages she had thoroughly and admirably tamed the Calderwood’s booming Steinway, the problem was less with her than with Jackiw’s over-the-top (under-the bottom?) play-acting with the dynamics. In fairness, though, a friend sitting in the first balcony reported better balance, so the hall’s acoustic might have been partly at fault. We don’t want to leave the impression that this was a bad performance, as there was much to praise: the carefully controlled and tight vibrato in the slow bits of the middle movement, Polonsky’s refined yet emphatic staccatos in the fast bits, and Jackiw’s pure and elegant tone throughout. What didn’t delight was the over-calculation of every phrase, which diminished any sense of spontaneity and sometimes depleted the great store of charm this sonata can impart.
The D minor sonata was the one of the set that Jackiw and Polonsky played at Rockport, and most of what struck us about that performance held true at the Gardner. Some things impressed us particularly this time: the codetta in the first movement was brilliantly effective, with thrilling tension behind the soft dynamic (one instance where the players were completely in dynamic synch); the lyrical tune of the second movement was exquisitely paced as a single long melodic breath. The “scherzo” was rendered with intense passion, over the whole dynamic range from wisps to roars, and, in remarkable contrast to most of the expressive choices they made, they were big and bold right out of the box in the finale. The chorale-like second subject was not excessively subjugated, and the buildup of tension from the development into the onrushing recapitulation in the finale was both perfectly structured and tempestuously persuasive.
The G major sonata is our personal favorite of the three, and must be Jackiw’s as well, as he took the trouble to explicate his take on it (he has apparently given this speech before, as our colleague Jim McDonald reported here). His and Polonsky’s performance, we’re happy to say, was the least mannered on the program, and consequently the best. The first movement flowed beautifully, though the prominent pizzicato when the piano has the tune didn’t ring out as well as they might have. Jackiw’s cross-string tremolos were especially effective, not just technically but as an expressive device. The outer sections of the slow movement slid back a bit into bathetic exaggeration, but the slightly choppy “B” section, and the wonderfully effective transition from that back to the “A,” made up for the lapse. The tinkling piano part of the finale, taken from the “Rain Song” that gives the sonata its nickname, sounded rather more Bachian than Chopinesque, but that’s Brahms for you—he does nearly the same thing in the finale of his C minor piano quartet, for virtually the opposite esthetic purposes. Polonsky kept this passage in the background with admirable restraint. In this movement, Brahms invoked the cyclic form that he used on and off, to perhaps the best effect of any piece he used it in other than the Second Symphony. The tune of the slow movement plays a prominent role here, and the first movement’s principal theme is hinted at in its linkage to the dotted anacrusis introducing the main theme of the finale. Jackiw pointed this connection up very effectively.
For an encore the duo switched over from Brahms to his muse and dear friend Clara Schumann, with her Romance No. 1 in E–flat, from op. 22 (1855), far from a trifling piece, which they rendered fetchingly.