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Appealing Balancing Act in Ashmont


Enticing as a balmy Spring day may be, Ashmont Hill Chamber Music came in with an even better offer on Sunday afternoon, an irresistible recital by violinist Geneva Lewis and pianist Evren Ozel perfectly balancing old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, soothing and challenging. The sold-out Peabody Hall at All Saints Church attested that we weren’t the only ones thus seduced.

The duo began with the most recent composition, the Violin Sonata No. 1, op. 7 (1997) by Turkish composer and pianist Fazil Say (b. 1970) (the printed booklet omitted the ordinal number, but since 2019 there has been a second sonata). Say (pronounced like sigh) is someone we’ve heard of but not actually heard. The piece itself has been commercially recorded and can also be found on YT; it has even generated some academic interest, as here, and Ozel has performed it not only on his current tour with Lewis but with other violinists.

The Sonata No. 1 is in five movements, of which the last is a recapitulation of the first. Those are marked “Melancholy,” though to these ears they came over as more pensive and musing. The whole work is structured as a time-space travelogue of Anatolian Turkey (Say hails from Ankara) framed by these wistful, contemplative brackets. The opening is quite striking, with gossamer whole-tone runs in the piano offsetting a simple violin line, whose phrasing ends with an almost Kreislerian sweetness. The short movement (they’re all short; the whole piece takes only 15 minutes) has an ABA structure, but the middle section doesn’t differ radically in affect from the outer ones. The second movement, “Grotesque,” is a scherzo reflecting “a scene of Ottoman revelry” (quoting from Say’s notes to the score). It is for sure rhythmically punchy, with many meter changes. It also uses some “prepared piano” techniques to emulate a Turkish drum while the violin employs tremolo pizzicatos to mimic an oud.  Lewis and Ozel were well-invested in all this, though they could have been even more flamboyant here than they were. The third movement, a perpetuum mobile, evokes a folk dance from the Black Sea region, to which the duo gave a wonderful intensity. The slow fourth movement, an andante in binary form, is curiously given the movement heading “anonymous”; it uses a folk song, the title of which translates as “my room is whitewashed,” or maybe “limed,” whose words (quoted in the Kalantzi paper linked above) go from seductive to dark. Its A section is perfumed and veiled, the violin muted and then in harmonics; the B section features a gentle violin ostinato accompanying more piano mimetics, with hand-on-strings damping to affect a type of zither. As noted, the finale repeats the opening, the purpose of which is to change everything in the listener’s perception without changing anything. A delightful piece, delightfully and persuasively performed.

Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Violin, No. 10 in G major, op. 96, was his last essay in the genre, written in 1812 (not published until 1816), nine years after his No. 9, the “Kreuzer.” The two couldn’t be more different, and while this generally gentle, charming and cheerful sonata has been performed and recorded by all the big names, it doesn’t seem to get nearly as much love on the concert circuit. Partly this is a consequence of the circumstances of its creation, at the request of Beethoven’s student and patron Archduke (and Cardinal) Rudolf, for something to perform with the French violinist Pierre Rode, who had expressed distaste for “rushing and resounding passages” (which of course was Beethoven’s signature style). There are too many available commentaries on the sonata for us to go into descriptive detail here (try this one). Lewis and Ozel brought gently wafting, caressing breezes and warmth to the opening Allegro moderato, resisting all temptations to overplay the few more energetic passages. Likewise, they were tender and songful in the Adagio espressivo, Lewis impressing with an exceptionally tight vibrato. The G minor scherzo brought, as one would expect, more vigor, but again not overdone, and Lewis floated a sweet tessitura over the trio, and the duo ended it with a bravura flourish. While generally conforming to Rode’s preferences, the finale variations on a sedate poco allegretto tune afforded Beethoven a chance to sneak in some of those “rushing and resounding passages,” especially toward the end, where these alternated with more demure ones, a bit of Beethovenian humor that Lewis and Ozel were happy to indulge.

Lewis, though for quite some time resident in the US, comes from New Zealand, whose probably most famous composer, Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), spent the late 1930s in the UK as a student of Vaughan Williams before returning home for the bulk of his career. The violin sonata performed Sunday (just called “Sonata,” which is pretty confusing since he also labeled some of his piano sonatas that way) dates from 1950 and was not his only one: he had written two sonatas in 1943, one in E-flat major and the other in C major. It is in a one-movement plan, more like a fantasia, with its 12½-minute duration carved into six sections, which however “read” as more like five. A sober moderato opening with a couple of jazz-like touches, with well-wrought alternations of light and shadow, gives way to a more amiable yet powerful allegro with great dynamic variation, thence to a lament, largamente, a barn-dancey allegro, and a concluding contemplative tranquillamente recessional. Most of the music gives off a very English feeling, though not of the RVW sort. Lewis and Ozel gave it its full due.

Props to the twosome for saving the gnarliest bit of music for the program’s conclusion, where one might ordinarily expect a Romantic warhorse. Bartók’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, Sz. 75 (1921) is regarded by many as “difficult,” music that leaves many listeners confused and a bit bruised. Nominally in c-sharp minor, it largely overrides conventional tonal practices with folk-derived motivic elaborations such as pivoting intervals around a central note and further muddying the harmonic waters with dissonances. Not as percussive as, say, the first piano concerto, the sonata sets up some idiosyncratic harmonic premises based on interlocking diminished seventh chords, which it then spreads out melodically. Lewis and Ozel delivered an exceptional performance by way of stellar clarity with which they limned the structure of the piece—which is actually quite conventional sonata structure—but also communicated its lyrical heart. There is a slower “night music” passage toward the end of the development section in the allegro appassionato first movement that they brought perfectly up to the beginning of the recapitulation, such as to provide a sudden flash of reorientation; this was very well thought out. The actual slow movement, introduced by a not-quite violin cadenza with spare parallel chordal accompaniment, was also a great exercise in controlled buildup before ebbing away in what we think of now as Bartók’s patented bridge structure. One must remember that in 1921 the composer had only just started to discourage performers from doing his 1904 Piano Quintet, probably his most popular chamber music to that point (and a wonderful piece, so no need to shun it today); in light of the breakthroughs this sonata and the contemporaneous orchestral music was making, quite understandable from Bartók’s standpoint. The finale, though, acts as a kind of relief to the audience, on firmer ground with folk-like dancing rhythm and melodic structure, and a much stronger grounding in recognizable harmonic procedures. It also closes with a stunning bravura wallop, which Lewis and Ozel brought off with elan.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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