Violinist Angelo Xiang Yu and pianist Qing Jiang presented high artistry Saturday evening in Jordan Hall, courtesy of the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts. From less to more was the rule of the night more or less, as gentlemanly, restrained Mozart gave way to tumultuous Beethoven. After intermission, the two performers let their hair down altogether as they lit up the place with the Debussy Sonata for Violin and Piano, a world premiere of Ke Xu’s The Echo in the Sky, and Ravel’s Tzigane.
The Adagio in E Major K.261 was apparently written for Mozart’s friend and violinist Antonio Brunetti as a replacement for the slow movement of the Violin Concerto No. 5, which Brunetti found “too artificial.” It has stayed in the repertoire as an independent piece for violin and orchestra. Jiang set the tone beautifully for it, and for the evening. Her playing and phrasing, incredibly balanced, made the missing orchestra moot. Mozart was rendered well-rounded by both artists, long, lyrical line emphasized over simple charm. For slight contrast, there was still ample charm and grace in the Rondo in C Major K.373, a short work which followed, also for violin and orchestra and also for Brunetti. In it Yu occasionally ventured toward that happy, quasi-whimsical Mozart-appropriate style of tossing off phrases. And he would shift instantly from big, rich sound to lean and bright. The two artists’ rapport was spot-on, here and throughout.
It was intriguing to note that the work contains a theme—a quick series of unrepeated phrases that Mozart sneaks into the middle (~3:30), disappearing before you know it—that became the climactic material for Carlos Gardel’s “Por una Cabeza” tango, popularized in a number of movies including True Lies and Scent of a Women.
Both the Adagio and Rondo, slow and brisk, were given as studies in lyricism: contrasts in rhythm, volume, and tension were expressed with subtlety and clarity, the stress on flow. Contrast on a bigger scale was to come, first, with and within the Beethoven, and then with each piece to follow.
Where Mozart was happy to share a beautiful motif and move on, Beethoven wants to imprint his. And that he does, with both of the hugely contrasting themes of the first movement of the C-Minor Sonata for Piano and Violin, Op. 30 no. 2.
Beethoven’s three sonatas for piano and violin in the opus were published in 1803 as “Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with the Accompaniment of Violin.” The piano opens all four of No. 2’s movements alone, to introduce the thematic material. Jiang had real opportunity to shine (in a wonderfully dark way) and polish her mettle, again setting a tone, but now with whispery, tension-laden, rhythmically precise octaves. The nerve of ostinato 16ths is at first only implied, then provided in abundance by the piano as soon as the violin reintroduces the opening. Some accompaniment by Yu! The two artists drove as one force, working with and against each other, with loads of tension, awareness of structure, contrast and drama. With the arrival of the second theme, I was wanting a little aristocratic, Napoleonic chin-up haughtiness along with Beethoven’s down-to-earth bounce. (But then I doubt whether haughtiness is part of either of these two artists’ makeup, more like humility despite world-class talent.) With the development of the first theme, Yu introduced melancholy and pleading over the piano’s relentless march. While still in the Classical realm, it was a world apart from those works by Mozart.
The slow movement brought lovely singing tone from both instrumentalists, along with a gentle pulse and comforting lilt. The scherzo had much grace and no little grit, with jarring offbeat accents and a dotted rhythm theme that sounded like a pub tune response to the second theme from the first movement.
With the finale, somehow like the first movement turned on its head, there were power, energy, and flawless ensemble. More-pleasurable pleading in the bridge led to a raucous second theme, which later becomes an intensely brooding contrapuntal exercise. The tension relaxed, only briefly, before the two launched full throttle into the furious coda.
After intermission, Yu and Jiang expanded their palette in a big way, with a passionate rendering of Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor, one of the composer’s last works. It was lush, intensely quiet, big and bold, just to start. Jiang’s piano playing was simply fantastic, but Yu made it clear, if it was needed, that the violin in the right hands can do things no piano ever can. From piercing harmonics to frothy, fuzzy, slurry phrases, to cutting sounds, to—finally—soaring and angry anguish to close the first movement. Asian, Spanish, Javanese and gypsy influences were pronounced.
Wit, charm, and relative caprice governed the Intermède second movement, with sentiment held in check during all but select three-note phrases mostly marked rubato. Some of the movement seems to anticipate Prokofiev. It was useful to learn that the repeated-note theme is said to be a play on the last name of violinist Gaston Poulet, with whom Debussy premiered the piece.
As it was useful also to learn of Debussy’s description of the finale, Très animé: “which goes through the most curious deformations ending up with the simple game of an idea which turns on itself like a snake swallowing its tail.” The movement opened with crystal-clear shimmers of triplets from Jiang and more superb ensemble. There were much stop and start, two against three, and playfulness where the duo would present a musical idea, change tempo, repeat it, alter it, all the while with Yu changing the sound from fuzzy to strident. A lot of fast and furious playing led—marchlike, with the ‘snake swallowing its tail’ triplets—to a sudden close to a thrilling performance.
It couldn’t get any more colorful, right? Wrong. Ke Xu’s The Echo in the Sky, written for Xiang Yu and commissioned by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, was a tapestry of color and effect, and quite a pleasing piece. Yu began the work with big slides, before the piano made bold entrance. The work sounds romantic and lush, at times jazzy, and seemingly influenced by Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Scriabin. The piano part is ridiculously difficult, full of cascades up and down the keyboard, with strong thumping from placing the lefthand on the strings, as well as strumming them. It’s likely the violin part is equally challenging. Both players were well up to the task. I’m not sure if the work is sectioned in movements, but early on there is big piano cadenza, with a thrilling and lyrical violin entrance to close it. Soon after, the violin accompanies the piano with a pizzicato section and weird but wonderful harmonics. Later, the work seemed to be polyrhythmic (combinations of 5,7,9?) and full of virtuosity from both artists before settling into a lyrical 4/4, with a violin cadenza adding humor. Quite a canvas, all told. Met with loud and warm applause for composer and artists alike.
Ke Xu’s program notes read:
Featured by Angelo (Xiang Yu), I tried to find out a special way to compose this piece until I learn so much about his childhood. Inner Mongolia, where Angelo was born, a place is nearby the edge of the sky in China. Boundless grassland, millions of horse, wild wind, the purely blue sky, cement a magnanimous heart and an indomitable character of Angelo Xiang Yu. In this piece, I added some material of Mongolia traditional tunes and combined with some contemporary compositional techniques. I hope that will touch his beautiful memory about the time he struggled for his future with his violin, the time his heart was singing on the sage with his violin, and the place he was born in, since where is the beginning of his dream with his violin….
A few seconds into the Tzigane prompted a grin. We were not in Vienna anymore. That’s not to say that Xiang felt out of place; he was clearly in his comfort zone. And we were in for a ride. Who needs a tango (harking back to the Mozart Rondo) when you get a full-throttle gypsy experience? The sounds Yu produced to launch into Tzigane’s long opening cadenza were startlingly big, steely and woody at once. He danced like a gypsy and used the stage as an extended soundboard, moving forward several feet at times to produce a whole different sonic projection for different parts of the hall. He sounded scratchy, drunken, sultry, and a little pissed. Hard to imagine it done better. We’d almost forgotten about Jiang until her bewitching piano appearance. Once she entered the fray, everything was ratcheted up a notch, as we heard amazing variations on the gypsy theme. In a lighter section, there were more drunken teetering and dancing, but mostly it was thrill ride to the end, with an ovation for the artists.
For encores, we were treated to the slow movement from Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Piano S.1016, followed by the famous Gluck Melody from Orpheus (which Jiang had been introduced to only a couple hours earlier), interpreted with pleading phrases.