It is difficult to enter the Gardner Museum without heightened anticipation: the spatial aesthetics compel you deeply to consider internal and external forms and volumes. The Gardner’s welcoming energy extends to its unapologetically cubical Calderwood Hall. World-renowned virtuosi Nicola Benedetti, violin, and Alexis Grynyuk capitalized on this intimate and inventive space, giving structurally aware and timbrally divine performances of some of the canon’s best sonatas for violin and piano. This concert transcended the players’ virtuosity; their skill ultimately pointed to mysticism beyond themselves shared through performances of monumental works.
Barely pausing after acknowledging the audience, they went steadily to task on the famous unison introduction of Mozart’s Sonata No. 28 in E Minor for Pianoforte and Violin, K304 (1778). The duo fully engaged each other and the audience, moving freely, though precisely, through the music. Seated at eye level with the performers, I could count the folds on Grynuk’s forehead, forming as he furrowed for dissonances.
Although both have vibrant solo careers, the pair’s impeccable synchronization spoke to their history of performing together. The duo shared the musical spotlight flawlessly, Benedetti’s tone shifting all the time, to lessen or heighten her blending with the piano: all for the sake of structural clarity.
Nonetheless, their physical personalities seemed at odds with their attire. Benedetti in a black, floor-length dress with pictorial flowers, moved gracefully, if not conservatively, while Grynuk in more standard concert attire assumed elaborate facial gestures and often repositioned his upper body at the keyboard. Most notably, he often fixed his gaze upwards in a pose of delicate sensuousness, if not spirituality. Though an ostensibly authentic, as with the rest of his gestures, it often distracted from the wonderful sound emanting from his controlled and sensitive touch.
My favorite moment of the concert came in the Tempo di Menuetto second movement of K.304, a wonderful relaxation from to the vibrancy of the first movement. Towards the beginning, Grynyuk’s wonderful intimate trill seemed to grow and shrink with the control and variety of sound expected from a bowed instrument. Benedetti at all times, featured such timbral tastefulness and agility, dissolving towards niente between and within phrases, granting melodic fragments a delicate volatility. Benedetti perfectly captured the beautiful simplicity of chordal resolutions, in a way that words fail to communicate. The affective variety in the two movements somehow balanced, but suggested an equilibrium that Elgar’s effusive Romantic totally upheaved.
The fuller engagement of the instruments’ sonic possibilities in Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E Minor, Op 82 (1918), cast the Mozart in an austere light. Displays of power including wider and more rapid shifting of range, volume, and textures, took on from where I sat close to the players, an entirely different character than they would in most halls or recordings; they could be felt.
Benedetti widened her timbral choices, employing a grittier sound (which helped balance the piano) by placing her bow closer to the bridge. Unfortunately, the piano felt a little too loud for this lavishness. Though the piano never covered the violins entirely, at times the brute power of the full-size lidless grand drowned the Benedetti’s intimate details.
Small details aside, the duo wonderfully swam with Elgar’s Romantic flow, at times pulsing within it, at times soaring over it, though the performance at times left me needing air, as I followed closely through the harmonically colorful, if not intellectually adventurous sequences.
The Romance: Andante second movement brought a fresh playfulness, especially in a repeated trading off of an arpeggio: pizzicato on violin, with a secco reiteration in the piano. Through timbral and time-taking sensibility, the performers brought this difference in character to life. A more abstract form of disunity came out here, with more rhythmic suspensions between the players. The Allegro non troppo third movement brought us to the fullest voluptuousness yet as the performers reveled Elgar’s meandering melodies with attention to all the colorful melodic notes. Again, the piano teetered on the edge of overwhelming the space, but the performers spoke so clearly that these matters did not interfere in a significant way.
After a brief intermission the pair came back with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 for Violin and Piano, Op, 47, “Kreutzer.” This performance pristinely projected Beethoven’s mastery of musical elements. For instance, this work contained more variety to the textures and different incarnations of the violin-piano relationship. However, Beethoven’s command over varieties of form shouldn’t be confused with Elgar’s romantic energies: these contrasts did not didn’t have such expressive volatility, though they thoroughly elucidated Beethoven’s narrative forms by underlined complex interrelationships. The duo shined throughout this long work, compassionately, highlighting all the surprises, especially the quiet moments, and even poignant silences at structurally significant moments.
It was truly a privilege to bask in Benedetti’s and Grynyuk’s radiant sensibilities. They transformed the concert space into a sonic oasis of beauty and narrative sealed from the rest of the world, even if only for a couple hours on an ephemeral Sunday afternoon deep in the snowy winter.