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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Seriously Music

THE VIOLIN ENTERS in measure five of Brahms’s Sonata No. 2, and it’s a tentative moment, echoing the piano’s just-sounded trip from F# down to C#, but making a more reluctant descent of it by adding the intervening E and D. It’s marked “piano,” with an immediate decrescendo hairpin. But it’s tricky to be quiet there.

Stefan Jackiw
Stefan Jackiw’s entrance was all the quieter because he started that F# somewhere in the pianississimo range – could he even hear it himself? – and let it bloom into a haunting echo.

It happens again a few bars later, but this time the violin is more tonally assertive, echoing the piano’s interval of E to B, but finishing on A, the tonic. It’s subtle, but this is Brahms in his autumnal mode, creating drama in quiet ways. And, to their credit, Jackiw and pianist Anna Polonsky didn’t try to impose unnecessary drama. They followed the work’s mood shifts, bringing out its joyful rhythmic variety, letting the sunlight peep through in the movement’s development section.

Jackiw has a gorgeous tone and tremendous control. His shifts, for example, can be soundless if he so desires. “It’s the violin,” a woman behind me ridiculously declared at intermission. “That’s what makes him sound good.” No, an accomplished fiddler can make the humblest of instruments sound superb. And it takes nerves of iron, as well, as Jackiw demonstrated when a cell phone went off in the audience during the second movement and its owner struggled to figure out how to silence the thing. (When you give your grandparents cell phones, please teach them this important skill.)

Jackiw and Polonsky had their revenge with the 1984 Partita by Witold Lutosławski. It’s a dense, skillfully constructed five-movement work that, as Jackiw explained, owes a debt to John Cage’s fascination with the use of chance in music. Into a frame of three movements Lutosławski placed two transitional  interludes with only enough written material to give the violinist and pianist some ideas about what to play, with the note that they should not try to synchronize their playing.

While serving with the Kraków Army after the invasion of Poland in 1939, Lutosławski was captured by the German Army but escaped during the march to a prison camp. Back in Warsaw, he played piano in cafés (often programming the forbidden Chopin), fleeing the city just before the Warsaw Uprising. Like so many other artists scarred by the war, his work grew to reflect his witness of tragedy and neverending sense of threat.

Anna Polonsky
Which goes a long way towards explaining the complexity of his musical language. Beyond the world of tonality is a place of texture and crunch, where pattern becomes important. Lutosławski’s Partita began with gestures: a violin glissando, a sprinkle of piano notes, accumulating a sense of agitation before the comparatively pleasant ad-lib interlude took us to the central Largo.

Here is where Lutosławski’s debt to Shostakovich is evident, as he echoes the chaconne-like feel of the Largo in Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2. The Partita’s concluding Presto introduces a perpetual-motion figure that, over a succession of compelling harmonic changes, remains frenzied to its finish.

Kaija Saariaho’s tribute to Lutosławski, a nocturne for solo violin, opened the program’s second half. The delicate harmonics of its opening had to compete with coughs, but when is that not the case? The piece explores the instrument well, summoning slow double-stops and punctuating a passage of trills with left-handed string-plucks. By the time the harmonics return, we know that we’ve made a brief, affecting journey, and Jackiw shrewdly had Polonsky onstage throughout so that they could segue into the Franck Sonata without a pause.

Ah, the Franck Sonata. Its beauty has earned it a place as a cornerstone of the violin recital program – and it’s been poached by other instruments as well. But that’s also its problem – for me, at least. I OD’d on the piece decades ago, in large part due to a succession of well-meaning but unconvincing recitals with the Franck always featured during the second half. What about the sonatas by Fauré or Saint-Saëns, assuming you wish to keep it French?

At least I can’t accuse these performers of anything less than a stellar job. Jackiw’s phrasing is crisp enough that I heard new details in the piece. Not for him the sin of over-interpretation, wherein a performer layers on too many pauses and other phrase-torturing devices. Like the Brahms sonata, the piece gave Polonsky plenty to do, but she played with an assurance that sees well beyond the notes and into the heart of the music.

And the Franck nicely balanced the Brahms, having its own autumnal sense as well as a deft use of contrasting elements. In the case of the Franck, this also builds to the satisfaction of hearing those elements recur in various guises from movement to movement.

The flaw in the program was its utter and unrelenting seriousness. Once upon a time a blithering know-it-all named Virgil Thomson lambasted Heifetz for playing “silk underwear music,” and that attitude seemed to infect concertgoers and especially critics (always an insecure bunch). Thus a menu that included Kreisler and Sarasate too often gave way to purely Serious Fare – and still does, although I’ve been happy to see a couple of generations of performers backsliding a bit.

But this recital didn’t even allow an encore. Originally, the program was bookended by Ravel’s antic “Tzigane” and Schubert’s charming Fantasy in C. When did everything get so Serious?

Stefan Jackiw, violinist
Anna Polonsky, pianist
Memorial Chapel, Union College, 31 January 2016

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