Among the many excellent violin-piano recitals given in Boston this season, the concert by violinist Angelo Xiang Yu and composer /pianist Andrew Hsu at Jordan Hall Saturday night stands out as dazzlingly stellar. Sponsored by the Foundation For Chinese Performing Arts, who had also presented Yu in 2015, this joint recital featured much-loved violin and piano works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, and a world premiere of a solo violin piece by Hsu. The two musicians seem predestined to work together, so extraordinarily deep was their musical kinship.
Yu is no stranger to Boston audiences. Born in Inner Mongolia China, he moved to Shanghai at the age of 11 and studied with violinist Qing Zheng at the Shanghai Conservatory. Winner, at age 18, of the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition in 2010, Yu came to Boston to study with Donald Weilerstein at NEC, where he earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and where he was awarded the prestigious Artist Diploma in 2014. He also studied at NEC with Miriam Fried and Kim Kashkashian. Andrew Hsu, who has received numerous prizes for both his compositions and his piano playing, is a Doctoral Fellow at Juilliard.
The two opened with Mozart’s two-movement Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 21 in E Minor, K. 304, the only sonata for violin that he wrote in a minor key. Concert tours occupied Mozart between the years of 1762 and 1779. During Mozart’s last tour, he became acquainted with six “duets” for harpsichord and violin by Joseph Schuster of Dresden. Mozart was impressed with their structure in that the keyboard and violin form a true partnership rather than the earlier practice of one instrument accompanying the other. He composed a set of six of his own sonatas for piano and violin, K. 301-306, which was published in Paris in November of 1778. Mozart’s mother suffered her last illness and death in Paris around the time of the composition of this passionate two-movement piece.
Hsu and Yu caught the ephemeral beauty of the second movement, Hsu playing with otherworldly quietude. This was, however, just the beginning of our being seriously impressed by the two players, together and separately. Their Mozart was unusually memorable, partly because of unexpected dynamics, partly because of the very sensitive piano playing. The Tempo di Menuetto second movement brought us to a rare place of refinement and introspection which we were privileged to witness.
The world premiere of Andrew Hsu’s æther for solo violin, dedicated to his friend Angelo Xiang Yu, was full of fun- quick whistles, little snatches of sounds, a note played in a variety of ways, very high-pitched notes (which Yu always does brilliantly). The audience seemed to like this short piece very much. Andrew Hsu writes:
“The word æther can refer both to a flammable volatile chemical used in anesthetics or the open sky beyond the heights of the clouds: both definitions create a sense of space, in the former case, a psychological opening or void, and in the latter, physical space. Emptiness, then, is paradoxically the centripetal force of the present work. Silence is not void of expression, however, as a bottled intensity permeates through the work and binds the disparate, ephemeral gestures together into a single man.”
In Brahms’s Third Violin Sonata in D Minor, Opus 108, Yu moved us with deep artistry. Hsu listened-in a bit too much in the first movement, almost feeling deferential to the violin. In the dramatic fourth movement, Yu simply caught on fire; he and Hsu thrilled with their high-spirited account. Clara Schumann wrote this to Brahms about the piece, “I marveled at the way everything is interwoven, like fragrant tendrils of the vine. I loved very much indeed, the third movement, which is like a beautiful girl sweetly frolicking with her lover—then sudden in the middle of it all, a flash of deep passion, only to make way for sweet dalliance once more.”
The duo opened Beethoven’s beguiling “Spring” Sonata, Opus 24, poetically, with exquisitely shaped and balanced phrasing by the two; not-only did Yu exhibit a preternaturally steady bow arm and impeccable intonation, but the perfectly focused tone quality from the 1729 Strad and the mature artistry that these techniques serviced left us all agape.
Is there anyone out there who doesn’t love a great performance of Pablo de Sarasate’s 1882 Carmen Concert Fantasy, Op. 25? Yu, who must have performed it a hundred times), still could make it sound like a new discovery. He seemed to be having a fabulous time, smiling and emoting to the hilt. His youthful take, which avoided some of the overripe seductive clichés of mature exponents of the title role, made us imagine something of the purity of Michaela. In the famous “Habanera,” Yu and Hsu enjoyed something of a pas de deux. This reviewer, riddled with goosebumps from Yu’s ghostly harmonics, cannot recall a more smiling and exhilarating rendition.
After ovation mayhem broke out, here was no way these two consummate musicians could escape without obliging with two encores. The bittersweet Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) by Fritz Kreisler possessed a quiet but emphatic dignity; the luscious and heartfelt “Meditation” from Thais by Jules Massenet would have melted an iceberg.
This duo captivates with their polished blend of heart and intellect. When I last wrote about Angelo Yu, I marveled as his competition-winning technique. Two years later, one takes that almost for granted and simply marvels at the superb poets we were lucky enough to hear at Jordan Hall on Saturday evening, thanks to the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.