Deutsche Marks — German Virtuosity at Menlo

The Saturday July 22 Concert Program III at [email protected], “German Virtuosity,” transported the Italian violin tradition from Cremona northward, as deftly demonstrated in five elegantly performed works at the Menlo-Atherton’s Center for Performing Arts. Works by Rode, Beethoven, Spohr, David, and Mendelssohn graced a felicitous program that took Beethoven’s last sonata as a point of departure for the violin’s emergence into a burgeoning Romantic tradition in which the instrument would soar in expressive range and scale.

Violinist Arnaud Sussmann opened the proceedings with Pierre Rode’s Caprice No. 3 in G Major (1815), an etude – there are 24, one for each key in the chromatic scale – meant to evolve technique in terms of evenness, balance, and tonal quality. This, in scalar half-steps, had enough dexterity and imaginative shifts of register to keep us enthralled for its allotted three minutes. Immediately, Sussmann joined pianist Wu Han in Beethoven Sonata No. 10 in G Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 96, which Pierre Rode had debuted in Vienna, 1812. Delicacy and refined expression dominate the ethos of this late Beethoven work, his having exhausted the emotional fireworks of ardent passion in the Kreutzer Sonata. Beethoven’s lyricism extends into the gracious E-flat Major Adagio espressivo, whose bravura proceeds in subtle, muted tones, sotto voce, even in rapid finger work in thirty-second notes. The collaborative restraint that marked the first two movements relaxed temporarily in the Scherzo, whose gruff exterior, too, eventually yielded to the tonic G in its final measures. Typical of Beethoven’s capacity for “musical alchemy,” he takes a popular light-opera tune for use in variation-form as a finale. The music gains vitality and energy as it proceeds, and Sussmann and Han imbued the last pages with the kind of (contrapuntal) fervor that had been held in check until absolutely necessary.

Louis Spohr (1784-1859) maintains a reputation as the first conductor to wield a baton, and for his having written the Song-Scene Violin Concerto and a series of double-quartets for strings. Spohr generously attributed the idea for this latter concept to fellow composer Andreas Romberg. The participants for the 1823 Double String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 65 filled the stage: Adam Barnett-Hart and Jessica Lee, violins; Roberto Diaz, viola; Dmitri Atapine, cello; Aaron Boyd and Soovin Kim, violins; Pierre Lapointe, viola; and Brook Speltz, cello. Set in two generally antiphonal string choirs, Spohr had violinist Barnett-Hart’s serving a concertante role, leading in solo gallops and wide leaps, to which the rest of the enlarged ensemble commented and occasionally invested with colloquy. So much of the ensemble reminded us of a Baroque concerto-grosso, except here inspired with a new, galvanized spirit. The G Minor Scherzo flourished in pizzicato effects and a gallop in the central section. At times, we could hear adumbrations of the Italian Serenade of Hugo Wolf. The set of eight voices became transparently effective in the Larghetto movement, a true cantabile from a coordinated ensemble. The Finale: Allegro molto, confirmed our impression of an extremely gifted master of invention whose level of inspiration somehow misses the empyrean heights of his more esteemed contemporaries.

After intermission, violinist Sean Lee graced the stage with the Caprice in C Minor for Solo Violin (1830) of Ferdinand David (1810-1873), whose lasting repute lies in his advice to Mendelssohn regarding the E Minor Concerto. Set in song-form, this dazzling caprice – one of six – began in a 6/8 canter that would soon explode into multiple stops and bravura leaps and register shifts. Sean Lee seemed to have devoured the punishing technical challenges in one artful gulp, and his last chords found hysterical appreciation from an enrapt audience. Mr. Lee proceeded to position himself as string leader in the Piano Quartet No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 3 (1825) of the fifteen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, which proved to be the brilliant gem of the evening. With pianist Juho Pohjonen; Roberto Diaz, viola; and Keith Robinson, cello, Mr. Lee shone in his part of a work that imbibes Beethoven’s sense of drama while retaining the brash fluency of Mendelssohn’s own style, particularly in the keyboard, which runs riot in triplets and sixteenth notes and a demand for the player’s perpetual contribution.

A “learned” energy pervades the work, almost in spite of its blatant sturm und drang, heaven-storming sensibilities. Mendelssohn revels in contrapuntal episodes, and a full-blow fugato in his whiplash finale. But beyond the virtuosity of Pohjonen, the individual colors of the string players claimed their due, especially for cellist Keith Robinson, whose tone seems always richly voluminous. Viola player Diaz had his moments in the lovely Adagio movement, one of those countless songs-without-words Mendelssohn has at his inspired disposal. The quicksilver Scherzo: Allegro molto, once more adumbrates the elfin character we know from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But we heard this “familiar” music with a difference: Mendelssohn casts many of his melodic impulses in Neapolitan harmonies, aligning his emotional world with that of Beethoven (in the Appassionata) and Chopin (in his Ballade No. 1 in G Minor). The blithe momentum of the piece simply rushed us along, headlong, into a cataclysm of harmonious, impassioned sound, and the resultant, almost hysterical burst of applause barely expressed the combination of delight and surprise we had just experienced.

End

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