The town of Rockport was remarkably empty late in the afternoon on Tuesday—it’s still pretty early in the summer season—but the Shalin Liu Performance Center was well populated, though not completely sold out, for the recital by violinist In Mo Yang and pianist Renana Gutman. Honorees of the “Rising Star” series at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, Yang and Gutman, each a prodigious accumulator of prizes from international competitions, put on a delightfully varied program of Mozart, Brahms, Schoenberg and Ravel, each work with individual points of interest.
The results were varied themselves, but the more we heard the more we came to believe that this had less to do (though not nothing to do) with how the artists actually performed than what the hall itself did to their performances. Several BMInt reviewers have noted, most recently publisher Lee Eiseman at the opening weekend of this year’s festival, that the hall is not friendly to upper registers, especially in the strings. For this acoustic sin (which, for reasons of its own, the management acknowledges but isn’t taking steps to correct) we hereby dub the room “der Fiedelfresser,” the fiddle-gobbler. It’s a trap that the musicians seem to fall into every time, since what they play sounds just fine from on stage, so unless they they are encouraged to make the balance between violins and everything else sound wrong to them, it’s going to sound wrong to everyone else. And thus it was, mostly, and the exceptions were telling.
The first item on Yang and Gutman’s agenda was Mozart’s odd little Sonata for Piano and Violin [sic] in A Major, K. 305. In only two movements, it was one of six he composed on the road in 1778, as part of a concert tour ending in an extended stay in Paris. Although the title gives away its presumptions about the relative roles of the instruments, it is not so dominated by the piano that violinists don’t want to play it. The opening allegro di molto is, and was so conveyed by Yang and Gutman, a sprightly entertainment with just a hint of dappled shadow, but with some masterful twists of harmony. The second movement, six variations on a somewhat sedate andante theme, offered sweet and delicate violin commentary on the piano’s leading role. Gutman kept up her own running commentary of silent mouthings and bobbing eyebrows that sometimes distracted from her nimble passagework and poised phrasing. Because of the sonic imbalance noted above, Yang struggled to project his line (well, actually, he wasn’t struggling to project it, we were struggling to perceive it) over the relative rumble of the Steinway, so it’s somewhat to the good that he appeared to be trying to wring more from the music than was there. His tone was admirable and his affective restraint was just and proper without detracting from the music’s charm.
Brahms Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78, definitely for violin and piano, closed the first half. This is our personal fave of the composer’s three, all of which are high points in violin and for that matter chamber music literature (in many respects Brahms’s chamber music is the perfect avatar of the entire genre, so intimate and engulfing is its discourse). Sadly, we got less out of this performance than we were hoping for, again largely to the failure of the violin’s sound to rise to equal partnership with the piano’s. Had we been on the stage, it would undoubtedly have been greatly satisfying: Yang’s unfussy but well-considered phrasing and dynamic shaping let the music sing for itself, with a lovely natural swell in the second theme of the first movement, though there might have been less of an over-arching architectural sense in the artists’ conception than in others we’ve heard. Gutman’s opening of the second movement was pregnant with sorrow (this movement, it is said, was written in memory of Brahms’s godson, the youngest son of the Schumanns, who died at age 24), which Yang picked up on at his entrance as well; the movement’s closing was equally poignant, In a way that used to be called “poetic.” The finale, derived from Brahms’s song “Regenlied” (rain song) that sometimes lends its name to the sonata, contained lovely splashes from the piano against the violin’s sometimes questioning, sometimes soaring, lyricism. Brahms makes it hard to overlook the cyclical aspects of this movement, bringing back as it does the theme from the slow movement as a major component of this one and tying the dotted rhythm of the finale to the same rhythm from the opening movement in the closing bars. Those closing bars were glowing in Yang and Gutman’s rendition.
We noticed a slight thinning out of the audience after intermission, suggesting that the box-office poison of the Schoenberg name has not lost all its potency. Toward the end of his life, Schoenberg allowed some of his music to relax, even penning a few unambiguously tonal works like the variations for band. The Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment, op. 47, dating from 1949, is not so much like those, but while strictly constructed in his 12-tone system, it cannot disguise the underlying Romanticism of Schoenberg’s aesthetic, which is well brought out in the performance of it by Israel Baker and Glenn Gould, here (Baker gets this better, amazingly, than did Yehudi Menuhin in his more static collaboration with Gould here). The peculiarity of its name derives, it is said, from the fact that Schoenberg wrote the violin part out completely first, and then created the piano part under it. This is not such an unusual thing to do, especially in vocal composition, but it must have seemed to Schoenberg, for whom the integration of all the music in the dodecaphonic web would have made such a process less likely. At any rate, in this work as in none of the others on the program, Yang came out with a bang and never let his line wash away. His good phrasing instincts did not desert him here, either, and it comes to a soulful head in the middle, with Gutman displaying a refined delicacy. The closing section (sometimes treated as a second movement), a sort of scherzo, ranged from sprightly to intense and back. An excellent repertoire choice, excellently played.
The closer, now called Ravel’s Sonata No. 2 in G Major, acquired its number only by dint of the posthumous publication of its predecessor. Completed in a leisurely fashion between 1922 and 1927, it has become famous for its middle movement, an homage to American blues and jazz. In the delicate first movement Yang stresses all its sweetness, even in places that might have been more spiky. That said, Yang and Gutman were sublimely elegant, with nice spiccato bowing and, later, even better agitated tremolo and a stunning morendo at the end. In this performance, once could get the impression that the music was itself all about different bowing techniques, while the piano did its own thing, seldom linking up expressively (just to be clear: that’s Ravel, not a quirk of the performance). The blues movement should be contrasted with the first effort to incorporate this kind of music in a classical sonata, the violin sonata of John Alden Carpenter in 1912. While Carpenter gets into the tragic underpinnings of the idiom, Ravel’s blues are totally Gallic, like Debussy’s Cakewalk. Still, there’s no denying his affection for this music, and Yang and Gutman conveyed it with gusto and some excellent, clear pizzicato. The finale, built around a whirlwind moto perpetuo, was a virtuoso showpiece that Yang took brilliantly but suavely, with fine phrase shaping. The piano part is a bit choppier until near the end, when it joins the violin in more quasi-jazz and a headlong rush to the double bar. The audience was enthralled, and was rewarded with not one, but two encores: Kreisler’s Caprice Viennois and Heifetz’s arrangement of Debussy’s Beau Soir (not announced from the stage; doing so would have been a courtesy, not just to music reviewers).