Violinist Inmo Yang and pianist Sahun Hong offered diverse works for violin and piano at the Gardner this afternoon, sandwiching examples by three relatively unknown composers among the stalwart sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert. Yang inserted a brief interlude in the first half to explain the selections by José White Lafitte and Elena Rykova. Perhaps wary of the audience’s preference for the main attractions, he told us to “open our minds” when listening to these contemporary examples, before jokingly adding “you might end up hating them!”
Schubert’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major, D.574, dubbed “Grand Duo” by Anton Diabelli, who published the work 23 years after Schubert’s death, reflects a continuous dialogue between the two instruments. The piano’s plodding introduction yields to a lyrical tune in the violin. The dialogue between Yang and Hong immediately reflected the close relationship between the two musicians. Channeling Schubert’s Lieder, Yang’s flowing melodic song dominated the first movement and clearly entranced the audience. The Scherzo brought with it a lively dance and was accentuated by the delicate spiccato from the violin and staccato from the piano. The gracious Andantino found the tune intertwining between the parts. Yang’s sparing use of vibrato here effectively brought some equality to the sound and enhanced the dialogue. In the Finale’s skipping three-note motif, the piano finally could shine with the tune whilst the violin accompanied with rapid passages of broken chords.
Dying at an even younger age than Schubert, Lili Boulanger lived a devastatingly short life. Despite that, she gained considerable recognition for her compositions and became the first female winner of the Prix de Rome. Originally written for flute and piano, her Nocturne started with an intricate and compact melody in the violin before building in intensity with a series of rapid scales. The piano provided a Debussy-like soft accompaniment and the morceaux concluded with a reflective con sordino melody. Boulanger wrote Cortège for solo piano. The duo arrangement brought out a lively gallop with rhythmical pizzicatos and rapid passagework evoking a carnival procession without the funereal connotations of its title.
The audience remained silent when Yang asked whether anyone has heard of José White Lafitte. Yang educated all of us with Lafitte’s story: he was born in Cuba in 1836, studied at the Paris Conservatory as a violinist, worked as musician for Emperor Pedro II of Brazil and was the director of the Imperial conservatory before he returned to Paris in 1889. Yang also introduced Lafitte’s Violinesque – a virtuosic showpiece with hints of Cuban rhythms and similarities to Wieniawski. It opened with intimations of characteristic Wieniawski– a dance-like tune rapidly skipping between lower and higher pitches with plenty of portamento. Yang effortlessly handled the intricate double-stops, betraying his self-deprecating message before the piece that some parts are “impossible to play.” Showmanship flourished in full force by the end, with a finale of descending chromatic octaves bringing the audience to raptures.
The Russian-born Elena Rykova, currently a doctoral candidate in composition at Harvard, came up with an aptly titled contribution, Marionette for amplified violin. Yang worked closely with Rykova, and his several broken bow hairs testified to his engagement. Marionette centers on exploring the open strings using a multitude of bowing techniques, including plenty of col legno. It reminded one of a child’s explorations, including harmonics that sounded accidental yet deliberate.
Like many of his works during this period, Beethoven dedicated his Sonata for Piano and Violin in G Major Op. 96 – (his last) to his piano pupil, friend, and patron Archduke Rudolph Johannes Joseph Rainier of Austria, who debuted it with the violinist Pierre Rode. A soft trill in the violin opens the first movement before moving on to passage of flowing arpeggios. Demanding a sweet, legato, and cantabile character, it provided a challenge for Yang that left him wishing he had an inch more bow near the end of each passage. Hong’s wonderfully expressiveness left no doubt of the piano’s stardom in the Adagio. The tender and reflective mood predicted the deeply personal nature of slow movements in Beethoven’s later works. The attacca entrance of the Scherzo immediately provides the sonata with an uneasy tension, especially with the frequent sforzandos. The trio provided some respite to the tension but fully resolving it only in the joyful Finale, essentially a set of variations on a folk song theme. A happy dialogue returned the concert to its beginnings. Yang’s technical stability in the 16th notes matched similar runs in the piano. A long adagio variation seemed to lose the theme and for a moment the audience we wondered if the musicians had returned to the second movement. A typically Beethovenian fugue and a rapid presto ended the sonata to merge the two instruments. The pair encored with Elgar’s Chanson de Matin, showcasing Yang’s expressive strength and Hong’s lyrical assent.