As the principal bloc of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival reached its penultimate entry Saturday night (two further programs come later on in the summer), audiences heard a ravishingly varied and breathtakingly executed recital by the youngish Taiwanese violinist Paul Huang and Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich that avoided anything in the warhorse category.
One might cock an eyebrow at that statement with the first item on the agenda being by Mendelssohn, but the Violin Sonata No. 3 in F major, MWV Q26 (1838), while no longer a rarity, has only appeared on listeners’ horizons since Yehudi Menuhin rescued its manuscript from an archive in 1952. The story is that Mendelssohn wrote it for his Leipzig concertmaster Ferdinand David, and after David and Mendelssohn first performed it, the composer felt dissatisfied with the first movement and began to revise it. Life, and then death, intervened, leaving the work in limbo, whence Menuhin extracted it and edited in the composer’s corrections before the great violinist performed it and had the edition published in 1953. In every respect the sonata is peak Mendelssohn: the opening Allegro vivace offers robust melodic invention and architectural brilliance, the Adagio is a gorgeous sustained melodic episode (Keith Horner’s program note averred it was a set of variations; if so it is remarkable for its consistency of tone and unbroken expressive line, but frankly it didn’t sound to us like variations, and with the score still in copyright there’s no convenient way to verify), and the finale is a classic confection combining bravura with cotton-candy lightness—think the finale of the first piano concerto). Huang and Rabinovich were perfectly aligned and equally present, with brilliant articulation (often in traded-off phrases), sublime tenderness, sensitive dynamic shaping, and elfin delicacy.
Another formidable, rarely played work, Respighi’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in B Minor, P. 110 (1917), like Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata, op. 20, represented an inflection point in its composer’s stylistic evolution, but they ventured in opposite directions. Strauss moved toward chromaticism while Respighi away from it, embracing soon after this sonata the modally inflected soft-edged neo-Renaissance idiom for which he became famous. Soulful and fulsome, Respighi 2 inhabits the twilit world of post-Romantic introspection even as the world around it convulsed. The opening Moderato gave Huang ample opportunity to display the creamy and opulent coloration afforded by his ex-Wieniawski Guarneri del Gesù,. The movement’s fairly simple second theme, into which Huang slyly stole, is characteristically contradicted by its sinuous harmonization in the piano. The movement ends not with a bang but with an ethereal sustain, after which the piano’s bell-like opening of the Andante espressivo second movement evokes a longing for the cloisters of the medieval world. It might be a bit excessive, but the —what’s the Italian for Weltschmerz?— was honestly earned and convincingly portrayed, no less so in the more agitated middle section. The finale is a passacaglia, whose portentous and implicitly chromatic theme resounded from Rabinovich’s pesante presentation and built up with admirable clarity and teleological determination. In the more lyrical variations one hears the beginnings of Respighi’s modal rebirth. Both performers majorly impressed and the audience thunderously approved.
Another virtuoso showpiece opened the second half as Huang whizzed, with no diminution in clarity and expression, through Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3 in D Minor for unaccompanied violin, op. 27 no. 3, (1924); unlike some of our colleagues, we don’t keep a stopwatch at the ready so can’t give you a precise timing, but definitely at the lower end of the range of most readings we’ve heard. The six sonatas of op. 27 stand, probably, second only to Bach’s partitas (which Ysaÿe references) as the pinnacle of solo violin works and paid homage to the great violinists of Ysaÿe’s day (excluding one of the greatest, namely himself). No. 3 is an appreciation of Georges Enescu, clearly aimed more at his performance persona than his compositional one, though there may be faintly detectable touches of his Romanian nationalism through the chromatic thicket of the multi-stopped writing. Huang gave us the poetry of virtuosity; indeed, poetry and virtuosity in equal measures, which is exactly what Ysaÿe was after.
Huang and Rabinovich closed with the Saint-Saëns Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, op. 75 (1885). Saint-Saëns doesn’t get enough credit for innovation, though he was one of the early exponents of cyclical form—the first cello concerto dates from 1878. One can imagine him reflecting on recent work by César Franck (perhaps the piano quintet, but not the A major violin sonata, which dates from 1886) and thinking “yes, but this can be done in a more French way.” The result was this sonata, completely pellucid in Saint-Saëns’s matter-of-fact way (he and Mendelssohn were peas in a pod on this) and bearing his stamp of a certain puckishness: in the first movement, for example, he sets up a sturdy principal theme, which for most composers using cyclical format would be the motto subject, but here it’s a MacGuffin—the real motto subject is the second theme, which not only recurs periodically, but also forms the basis for the thematic material of the interior movements and more obviously in the finale. Huang and Rabinovich strode through the first movement briskly but, as in everything else they played, with full attention to detail and the give-and-take of the part writing.
One other formal device Saint-Saëns favored, though he certainly didn’t invent it, was the attaching of one movement to another. His usages were more idiosyncratic, though: in a number of pieces including this sonata he took the standard four movements and put them into two large parcels, with two movements each. The first movement ended with a beautiful fade-out by Huang, leading to the sweet and delicate second, greatly enhanced in places by shimmering trills in the violin. The third movement scherzo is a fantastical fairyland where the motto tune is implicit in both the outer sections and the trio. This winds down, too, until the perpetual-motion finale leaps to life, where both players’ runs chase each other frantically (and Huang demonstrates a truly powerful bowing technique when the situation requires). When Saint-Saëns wants to let you know he’s ending, it’s with campy Offenbach-like scales and chord changes, all great fun. The audience couldn’t wait to leap to its feet.
And yes, of course there was an encore, the Londonderry Air a/k/a Danny Boy, in a louchely chromatic and in spots mauvais goût arrangement by Fritz Kreisler, dedicatee of one of Ysaÿe’s sonatas.
Huang and Rabinovich gave what was one of the most satisfying chamber music performances we have heard in years. Their expression, phrasing, dynamics and all else were so well attuned to one another you would guess they have been working on this material extensively. In so thinking, you’d be only half right. Huang has performed this repertoire several times this concert season, either parts of it or, in late June, the same program, but with a different pianist, Helen Huang (unrelated). That Rabinovich could come in for a one-off like this is extremely impressive. Follow their respective careers with great interest.
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.