IN: Reviews

Sweet and Glorious Chamber Music


Gloria Chien (file photo)

The (glorious) duo of pianist Gloria Chen and violinist Arnaud Sussman made a memorable appearance at Newton’s Temple Emanuel’s on Sunday afternoon, where the large audience enjoyed two sonatas of 250th-birthday-boy Beethoven as well as sonatas by Ravel and Debussy, and three romances by Clara Schumann, a set that is unsurprisingly cropping up a lot this year.

Sussman made a splendid impression. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire, and then with Itzhak Perlman at Juilliard for six years, where, for two years he was Perlman’s teaching assistant. Sussman is a member of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, and has been a decade-long violinist in Music @ Menlo, where he is co-director of Music @ Menlo’s International program.. He was recently appointed director of the Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach.

I’ve long admired Gloria Chien, mostly through Chameleon Arts Ensemble concerts, and last spring thoroughly enjoyed a concert she and her husband, violinist Soovin Kim, gave under the auspices of the Chinese Performing Arts Foundation (my review HERE). Chien has also distinguished herself as a concert presenter in her series String Theory in Chattanooga, and most recently, with her husband, has been appointed Co-Artistic Director of the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival in Burlington, Vermont, and Artistic Directors Designees at the Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Oregon. She is also Director of the Chamber Music Institute at the Music@Menlo Festival. I have always enjoyed, not just listening to Gloria Chien’s striking musicianship, but watching her at the piano, her arms and hands so beautifully graceful, like a dancer’s. Suffice it to say she is one of my favorite Boston pianists. 

Sunday’s concert began with Beethoven’s delightful Piano and Violin Sonata in F Major, Opus 24 (Frühlingssonate). The “Spring” Sonata, like several other Beethoven works, acquired its moniker only after the composer’s death. It was published in 1801 with a dedication to Count Moritz von Fries, a patron to whom Beethoven also dedicated two other works in the same year—the C major string quintet and the fourth violin sonata—as well as his later seventh symphony. It’s his first piano and violin sonata to have 4 movements. With no program notes, nor any mention of pieces’ movements, Sussman did his best from the stage, a practice I can usually live without. Audiences, however, never seem to mind, and apparently find this habit endearing.

Arnold Sussman (file photo)

Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano (1853) have gotten a lot of play recently (2009 was her bicentenary). They were given a beautiful performance, but, for this listener, the Debussy Sonata (for violin and piano) that followed reached the recital’s high point. The teamwork, was superb, but the sensational violin playing made a major impression. I’ve heard this piece, the last of three sonatas that Debussy wrote at the very end of his life, a hundred times, at least, but never have I heard it played more impressively on the violin. For one thing, parts of this (and other pieces on the program) went amazingly fast, yet Sussman showed extraordinary control over both dynamics and technique. Everything was clean; pitches were always discernible.Throughout, he had a wide variety of tone colors, dynamics, and vibratos. He produces exactly the sounds what he wants.

Later, in the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Piano (which I also enjoyed hearing Chien play in May), he again astonished in the second movement (featuring the sounds of a banjo and a fiddle). The “banjo” strumming actually had real melodic pitches. He has been compared to Heifetz and Kreisler, and he used both of their well-known types of slides. Impressive, indeed.

In Beethoven’s Sonata, No. 8, Opus 30 No. 2 in C Minor, which includes a quirky scherzo with a quasi-fugal trio, the performance matched the composer’s intended drama. A short encore from Dvořák student Cecil Burleigh’s Southland Sketches left the happy audience quite dazzled.

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.

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