Those hearty folks undaunted by the most recent Nor’easter were richly rewarded by the joint recital of Benjamin Beilman and Orion Weiss at Longy’s Pickman Hall Wednesday. Weaker souls missed an astonishing Celebrity Series of Boston appearance by two exceptional artists in perfect technical and interpretive lockstep, one that easily proved a highlight of the season.
The advertisements promised Beethoven’s first sonata for piano and violin, Op. 12, No. 1, as well as Béla Bartók’s Sonata No. 2, and I was at first disappointed when I saw both works scrubbed from the bill. But after experiencing their riveting account of Frederic Rzewski’s Demons (the New England premiere of this work, co-commissioned by Celebrity Series of Boston through Music Accord, Inc.) I could see how the duo might have thought their original program over-wrought. The new lineup lightened the load and emphasized the importance of the commission by pride of place—it fell between two recital classics, Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K. 526 and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Opus 96. The Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta closed with a virtuosic flourish, and even with these changes designed to cut the performance down to a manageable size, the recital finished at around 10:30pm after two encores.
Demons deserved the emphasis it received. Frederic Rzewski took the title from Dostoevsky’s 1871 novel, an indictment of the nihilist philosophy that dominated Russian thought in the 1860s. As he explained in his notes, Rzewski connected this radicalism and the “self-destructive forces” it unleashed in Russia to the contemporary political and social landscape in the United States. Rzewski’s politics have always been on his sleeve—his work The People United Will Never Be Defeated! of 1975 provides a case in point—and his words about Demons suggested that this piece would be no different. The work features “periodic references” to two popular songs, “Iroes” by singer Maria Dimitriadis and the Civil Rights anthem “Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” the latter of which is also the title of a recent book by the dedicatee of Demons, the leftist political activist, academic, and writer Angela Davis. However, just as Dostoevsky’s work cannot be reduced to ideological bullet points (this was a crucial feature of the writer’s protest as cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has described), neither can Rzewski’s be limited to the sum of its programmatic parts.
The first movement, marked “Nervous,” begins with oscillating 16th notes in the violin, cycling in patterns that lose their symmetry little-by-little, interrupted by accents and joined by the tolling of powerful low notes in the piano. This dramatic opening tableaux returns at crucial junctures, most poignantly at the work’s close. This sonic space also unfolds in a clear minor modality that provides a kind of tonic area from which the instruments depart into complex, dissonant asides before returning to the original sound in perpetual motion sixteenths. A sparse muted section follows and introduces another key aspect of their work’s sound world—silence, the negative space that peaks through the cracks between the sounds themselves. Empty space reaches its apex at the end of the third movement, marked “Timeless (senza misura),” in which the violin trails off to nearly inaudible harmonics after spending a large part of the movement singing softer and softer laments over vistas of low fifths in the piano. This stillness is shattered by the aggressive, pointillistic music that follows in the final movement, labelled objectively with only a tempo marking (quarter note = 126). Other themes return in reverse order in this final movement, and this cyclic thematic quality joins several other traits that recall another period in Russian history, the mid-century Soviet language of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Weinberg. The concept of manipulating folk songs, both for their melodic material and their ideological implications, occupied all three composers to a greater or lesser extent. Even Rzewski’s language in Demons offers flashes of the kind of flexible triadic modality of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but it unfolds here through a kaleidoscopic lens, distorted by funhouse mirrors, or broken into shards surrounded by the black space of silence. Once introduced, effects that at first seem merely novel (manipulating the piano strings by hand, for instance) linger in the sonic landscape. Beilman and Weiss brought inspired playing to this exciting new work, dispatching the extreme techniques, textures, and dynamics with poise and power, forcing their tone to the breaking point to project the intensity of the score. This new work by Frederic Rzewski is sonorously opulent, intellectually nuanced, philosophically complex, and nevertheless immediately rewarding and accessible. Let’s hope it finds the place in the recital repertoire that it deserves.
The duo interpreted all three of the other works just as brilliantly. Instead of opening with early Beethoven, Beilman and Weiss chose late Mozart, the K. 526 sonata of 1787, four years before his death. They balanced expression with taste, never descending to mannerism and kitsch. Their flawless ensemble matched subtle turns of phrase and rubato at every cadence. Here Orion Weiss managed a perfectly calibrated balance between sensitive rubato and rhythmic drive. While walking a bass line in the second movement, he traced Beilman’s minute shifts in tempo and tone as if the two linked mind and body. He played both the part of sensitive melodist and stalwart drummer simultaneously, and he calibrated his pedal work to provide a touch of spice. Beilman for his part brought a massive tone, balanced and matched from the E string stratosphere to the open G floor, with diverse vibrato speeds in the achingly beautiful second movement and an impressively easy virtuosity in the third. He snapped the plucky offbeats of this finale with clarity, and utilized the bow to warm the sound of even the most quotidian accompaniments.
This big-boned Mozart with explosive and sharp-edged dynamics made me wonder how the originally billed Beethoven Op. 12, No. 1 might have sounded. In the K526, Beilman burnished and controlled his tone from bridge to fingerboard, switching with ease from strident declarations to timid whispers. His sustain, and Weiss’s luster created a wide, rich ensemble sound in the second movement, and they contrasted the scherzo and trio of the third with wildly differentiated characters—cheeky and boorish in the former, delicate and refined in the latter. The final movement overflowed with perfectly matched articulations and characters.
Their sensual performance of Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta led seamlessly into their two encores, Kreisler’s Liebesleid and the “Blues” movement from Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Let’s hope that the Celebrity Series will bring these two back next year, perhaps even to Jordan Hall.
Matthew Heck is a musicology doctoral student at Brandeis.