IN: Reviews

Ebullience from Rockport Duo


Gilles Vonsattel (file photo)
Gilles Vonsattel (file photo)

For another in a long string of beautiful June evenings, Rockport’s Shalin Liu concert hall was packed, and full of high expectations which were certainly met, if not exceeded, by the violin and piano recital of Frank Huang and Gilles Vonsattel in sonatas by Beethoven and Prokofiev.

From the opening notes of Beethoven’s Sonata in F Major Op 24 for Piano and Violin (Spring), we realized we were hearing something special. Gorgeous violin playing and remarkably sensitive piano playing blossomed in every phrase and every movement of this sonata and the two sonatas that followed.

Beginning his second year as Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, Huang has a most impressive resumé by any measure. Now 38, he won the 2000 Hannover International Violin Competition and the Naumberg Award in 2003. He joined the Grammy-Award-winning Ying Quartet and within a year won the concertmaster job in Houston (his hometown) Symphony, where he stayed until beginning the Philharmonic job (apparently he held both jobs for one year!). He plays a 1727 Guarneri del Gesù violin that comes with the N.Y. job, and has been playing frequently with Gilles Vonsattel since winning a Naumberg a year apart.

Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel is for many good reasons a perennial. He won the Naumberg and Geneva Competitions, was a recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and Laureate of the 2009 Honens International Piano Competition. He teaches at University of Mass. at Amherst. Vonsattel is gifted both as a soloist and as a chamber musician.

The beguiling, graceful, genial Spring was one of a clutch of eight (of his lifetime ten) sonatas for violin and piano that Beethoven wrote between 1800 and 1805. Popular from the time of its debut, according to scholar and Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood, it avoids or minimizes “the abrupt percussive effects found in many of Beethoven’s earlier works… It may be an answer to the critics who refused to believe that he could lure them with the smooth and beautiful as effectively as he could frighten them with the bizarre and unexpected.” Unlike earlier classical sonatas, the musical material is deftly balanced between the two instruments. The duo performed it beguilingly. Throughout, the Huang’s intonation was impeccable, his highest notes dazzling, his temperament ebullient.

The setting sun ushered in Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Opus 80 for violin and piano, is as dark as the Spring is bright and joyous. After beginning it in 1938 shortly after Stalin’s “Great Terror” in which many of Prokofiev’s colleagues and friends were murdered or had disappeared into Siberia, the composer set it aside set aside during World War II. By the time Prokofiev returned to the work by the end of the war, he was deeply troubled by the brutality and enormous losses the war had inflicted. Its dedicatee, Ukrainian violinist David Oistrakh premiered it with pianist Lev Oboron in Moscow in October, 1946. Ostrich and pianist Samuil Feinberg performed the first and third movements of this piece at the composer’s funeral.

The well-received sonata won the composer a coveted Stalin Prize in 1947. In a formal condemnation issued in 1948, he, Dmitri Shostakovich, and several other prominent composers were charged with trafficking in “formalist distortions and antidemocratic tendencies” and although Prokofiev tried valiantly to rehabilitate himself, issuing a public mea culpa, his works were officially banned for the next five years until he died—on exactly the same day as Stalin- March 5, 1953. Prokofiev’s last five years were, unsurprisingly, quite miserable. This is music of enormous pathos and pain, and it often seemed as if the violin were close to sobbing. Huang dispatched his haunting trills and pianissimo scales up and down the violin with eerie perfection against the perfectly weighted chords. The chilling, spooky playing in the piano enhanced the mood of music written by a composer who had seen and who knew too much about war and suffering. Prokofiev told Oistrakh that the (violin’s) whispering scales should sound “like the wind in the graveyard,” and reader, they did. An extremely gripping performance.

Franbk Huang (file photo)
Frank Huang (file photo)

Beethoven composed his Sonata Op. 47 No. 9 for Piano and Violin, (Kreutzer) (1802-04) largely due to his encounter with the violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860), a virtuoso of impulsive personality both musically and personally, born in Galicia, the son of an African father and a German mother. In its subtitle, Beethoven mentions that it was written in a style “like that of a concerto.” Beethoven’s biographer Jan Swafford attributes the temporary break-up of Beethoven and Bridgetower as friends and colleagues over what the violinist recalled as “some silly quarrel about a girl,” so the dedication of this A Major Sonata, “an exercise in sustained intensity,” went to Rodolphe Kreutzer, a violinist in the entourage of the French minister, General Bernadotte. Ironically, “what Beethoven did not know was that Rodolphe Kreutzer had no use for Beethoven’s music and apparently never performed the work that made his name immortal. Kreutzer famously told Hector Berlioz that he found the sonata “outrageously unintelligible.” The two men played this piece after intermission minus the formal black jackets they wore for the concert’s first half. In their black pants and black shirts, they blended nicely into the night sky. The whole sonata was simply a marvel to hear; they should have the opportunity to record this whole program.

David Deveau certainly knows how to run a fabulous chamber music festival. Bravo to Deveau and to the whole staff at Rockport who make concert-going such a pleasure. And a groundswell of bravi to Huang and Vonsattel.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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