IN: Reviews

Comfortable, Comprehending and Full of Smiles


Dan Stepner (file photo)

A friendly and discerning crowd witnessed a recital by violinist Daniel Stepner and composer-pianist Yehudi Wyner Sunday at Brandeis University’s Slosberg Music Center to benefit the scholarship fund for Aston Magna’s annual Unaccompanied Bach (Violin) Workshop, which will place  six students next summer at Brandeis. This 13th salutatory concert began with J. S. Bach’s Sonata no. 3 in E Major, BWV 1016. Bach’s composed his six sonatas, as Stepner’s notes point out, with a fully realized and notated keyboard part, and as a result Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach referred to these duet sonatas as “trios” because so many of their movements involve independent right- and left-hand lines, as in the second and fourth movements here. In the first movement the fuller keyboard texture included inner parts in parallel thirds and sixths, supporting an elaborately soaring violin melody. The busily imitative lines of the second movement feature a dancelike melody, almost a folksong, that could be considered a Baroque precursor of “Skip to my Lou.” The changes in texture in the different movements are more prominent than any differences in dynamic level, which was fairly uniform throughout, and even with the piano lid open, never did any instrumental imbalance ensue. The third movement, in C-sharp minor, a duet with bass—actually a passacaglia-like ground bass—retains the same melodic shape but repeats on different scale degrees. (The first movement of Cantata 78 has the same kind of bass-line scheme.) The Allegro finale, in its opening and closing sections, revealed much in common with the first-movement moto perpetuo of the famous Partita no. 3 for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1006, which is also in E major.  The performance especially gratified, because of the smooth classical expressiveness of both players, with everything well shaped without exaggeration; the melodies do all the work.

Stepner also posited that Hindemith’s Sonata for Violin Alone, op. 31, No. 1, which followed, owed a good deal to the spirit of J. S. Bach; this became especially evident in the slow, rocking, dotted melody in 3/4 that dominated the second movement. Elsewhere among the five short movements what Stepner called Hindemith’s “whimsy, lyricism, and remarkable virtuosity” became readily evident, understandably for a composer who, as the violist of the Amar Quartet, was one of the most notable string players of his time. Abundant expressiveness prevailed here too, and the fading-out of the Intermezzo fourth movement in a repeated four-note pattern was particularly touching. A fleet Prestissimo fifth movement, con sordino and furtive, opened and closed with sections of furious chromatic fingerwork, nearly all of it in the first position as far as I could see. Hindemith composed this sonata in 1924, at age 29, already testing different forms in piano and chamber music and strange works for the stage.  Sixteen years later, he emigrated to the United States and began teaching at Yale, where Yehudi Wyner studied with him in the early 1950s.

Wyner wrote and rewrote his Three Informal Pieces at various times between 1961 and 1969; Matthew Raimondi, violinist of the Composers Quartet, and Broadus Erle, of the New Music Quartet, provided the needed urging at different stages of the work’s growth. The “informal” of the title could have been a reaction to “reigning attitudes” in the composers’ community in America and Europe, meaning increasing absorption in serial techniques and abstract forms: “I wanted to restore some elements of spontaneous invention to the compositional process.” by Short gestures, distinct blocks of musical time with rapidly-changing shapes set off by rests, a prevalence of staccato motives in both instruments, and perceptible echoes of tonal styles, even lilting melodies over ostinato beats, characterized all three of the short pieces: a frenzied first, less frenzy but high velocity in the second, and a ruminative pianissimo in the third, with the violin beginning and ending alone.

Yehudi Wyner (file photo)

Wyner’s Dances of Atonement, dated 1976, shared some of these same gestural qualities, but on a wider time canvas. “Kol Nidre” made use of a lesser-known chant melody from the Moroccan Jewish tradition. With a big sound, often favoring the low register of the piano, Dances offered stronger contrasts, with outbursts of some pianistic violence and insistent repetitions, and an assortment of recurring motives, sometimes bouncy and ragtime-like; I could hear a definite D minor at times. V’hakohanim (“And the priests…”) sounded different, more recitative-like, even violinistically argumentative, with one piano passage of bare fortissimo parallel fifths in both hands; this contrasted with the swaying muted-violin melody in 6/8 leading to a wry quiet ending.

Debussy’s Violin Sonata of 1917, his last completed work, ended the program.  This beloved sonata is so well known that we tend to forget a remarkable combination of fantasy and other-worldly form it shows, and how radiantly strong a work it is — hardly what one might expect from the pen of a dying man. It has the mature outlines of the classical sonata form that Debussy twenty years earlier affected to despise; it shows a Franck-like cyclicism; and it projects everywhere the fantasque et léger that is the tempo marking for the second movement. This performance was totally comfortable, confident, and comprehending, full of smiles.  

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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