in: Reviews

February 6, 2018

Rule Breakers and Rule Makers

by

Elizabeth Schumann (file photo)

If they still gave prizes for imaginative programming (apparently ASCAP and Chamber Music America ceased doing so in 2016), Sunday afternoon’s Close Up recital under the aegis of Chameleon Arts Ensemble would be a contender. Featuring Chameleon core members Robyn Bollinger, violin, and Elizabeth Schumann, piano (not to be confused with legendary soprano Elisabeth Schumann), it ranged widely over repertoire Chameleon Artistic Director Deborah Boldin characterized as “rule breakers and rule makers.”

While its usual venue of the Goethe-Institut is under renovation (here’s hoping they do something to improve its abysmal sight lines for concerts), Chameleon has split its 20th season programs between First Church for its larger ensembles and, for recital offerings such as this one, the Mary Norton Hall on the second floor of Old South Church. This room, with a proscenium stage that went unused in favor of a sideways orientation with Pops-style table seating (cookies and meringues provided!), is attractive enough and has a decent, if somewhat growly, piano that booms off the smooth, hard wall.

Aarvo Pärt’s Fratres took a while to get properly started, as did each subsequent piece. Some time ago we grudgingly acquiesced to the perceived need of concert presenters or performers to chat up the audience with introductory remarks often echoing what was in the printed program notes. Here, though, Boldin’s obvious enthusiasm for the music drove her deep into Leonard Bernstein territory by way of explication and musical examples. It left us feeling, to paraphrase the old joke about the hockey game, that we’d wandered into a lec-dem when all of a sudden a concert broke out. In fairness, some of Boldin’s comments were interesting and enlightening, but most could have been accommodated in the program book. We hope that Philadelphia native Bollinger managed to make it home for at least some of the game; she had earned her reward.

At any rate, Fratres is probably Pärt’s most popular instrumental work. It dates from 1977 as a piece for indeterminate instrumentation, with the violin-piano version done in 1980. Simply put, it’s a set of variations on a six-bar ground—a truncated chaconne, you might say. It’s an early example of Pärt’s “tintinnabuli” methodology focusing on what he hears as the bell-like clarity of triadic harmony. The tune, structured on a D harmonic minor scale without ever sounding the D minor tonality (you hear an awful lot, though, of the A major dominant!) is redolent of Russian church modes. It is stated by the violin solo in a virtuosic cadenza-like arpeggiation, to which Bollinger contributed sure technique and a raw edge as it made its way from ppp to fff. Each variation is then set off with a solemn two-bar refrain from the universe of Satie’s Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes. Schumann’s lines were admirably crystalline against the violin’s variations, mostly featuring arabesque tracery before reaching a fine intensity to close.

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, op. 30 no. 2 (1802) closed the first half. While still designated a sonata for piano with violin accompaniment, it is really a violin sonata in the modern sense—thus qualifying Beethoven as both a rule-breaker and a rule-maker. It was also one of his earliest pieces to employ the “new style of writing” to which he turned when Haydn-Mozart classicism seemed to him no longer adequate to communicate his personal vision. As with most middle-period Beethoven this sonata’s outer movements essay constructions from concatenations of small motifs rather than fully fleshed-out, balanced themes, sometimes expansively as in the first movement, sometimes more tersely, as in the finale. Bollinger and Schumann gave a taut, highly charged reading of these movements, Schumann displaying well crafted dynamic control and Bollinger nonstop energy. The slow movement (in A-flat, just as in the Fifth Symphony, also in C minor) was serene yet emotive, with Bollinger’s lightly applied portamento well suited to this lyrical interlude. The early Beethoven biographer Schindler said the composer thought about eliminating the scherzo because its gruff humor was out of keeping with the overall tone of the sonata; but this was probably more Schindler’s opinion than Beethoven’s, as its jerky, off-accent playfulness nicely sets up the intensity of the finale. Bollinger and Schumann gave it its due with, as called for, dynamic subtlety. We noticed too a stress by the performers on the playful aspects of the finale’s exposition, which otherwise reached a whirlwind of contrapuntal energy leading to an explosive coda.

The only published violin-piano composition by Erik Satie (see what we did there?), the 1914 Choses vues à droit et à gauche (sans lunettes) [Things seen right to left without glasses], a send-up of Baroque suites and virtuosic playing,  was his Parthian shot at all he had learned studying with Vincent D’Indy at the Schola Cantorum. Its three brief movements have titles as Dada-esque as the overall work: Hypocritical chorale (“my chorales,” he wrote in the score, “are equal to Bach’s, only rarer and less pretentious”), Groping fugue, and Muscular fantasy; the performance instructions are equally absurdist. The tune of the fugue, in particular, is dopey in the style of Peter Schickele’s creation Arcangelo Spumoni, but the working-out contains passages presaging neo-classical Stravinsky. Bollinger and Schumann kept their poker faces on and did justice to this paragon of parody, the former especially in the sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing cadenza to the Fantasy, a funhouse-mirror image of the seriousness of the Pärt that preceded and the Shostakovich to come.

Robyn Bollinger (file photo)

The Shostakovich Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, op. 134 (1968), is not funny at all, though it is not nearly as gloomy as his last work, the Viola Sonata, op. 147. He wrote it to “correct” an error of timing whereby he had written his Violin Concerto No. 2 for David Oistrakh, intended for the latter’s 60th birthday, a year too early. Shostakovich gave this piece an experimental twist, in that the first movement’s theme is constructed from a 12-tone row (though harmonized within the composer’s usual chromatically inflected tonal palette). To hear it performed by its dedicatee, with the great Sviatoslav Richter at the piano, go here. We can think of no higher praise for Bollinger’s performance than that it conjured up the fat, plummy, intense sound world of Oistrakh; yet it achieved elegant delicacy where necessary, as in the second theme of the first movement, with crunchy, biting attacks on the misterioso tremolos near the end. The central scherzo (a term one often has to use with reservation in the case of Shostakovich) was fierce, violent and scary: Bollinger put serious muscle into this movement, and while Schumann certainly held up her end, this was the violinist’s show. The finale, a passacaglia, started (after a pizzicato annunciation of the theme) expansively and built to a heady climax. Impressive in their varied textures, each player made a powerful showing in the cadenza-variations.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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