Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Discovering Barber at an SFCM Recital

Last night in the Osher Salon on the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), cellist Evan Kahn gave the first of his two Graduate Recitals. This involved the usual mix of solo compositions, two concerto movements, and one sonata movement. The overall program offered some highly original thinking; but the inclusion of the Allegro moderato (first) movement from Samuel Barber’s Opus 22 concerto in A minor made the evening a particularly stimulating journey of discovery.

The Barber canon includes only four concertos, Opus 14 for violin (1939), Opus 22 (1945), Opus 38 for piano (1962), and the Opus 21 “Capricorn” concerto (1944), actually a concerto grosso with concertante parts for flute, oboe, and trumpet and accompaniment limited to strings. Over the last few decades, the star of Opus 14 has begun to rise again and has established its place in the repertoire of many notable violinists. In that context many would find it difficult to believe that Opus 22 had been written by the same composer. Where Opus 14 was lyrical, Opus 22 homes in on angular thematic material, endowed with many of the sharp edges that one encounters in Barber’s more aggressive orchestral writing.

Kahn was not shy when it came to executing the composer’s bold, and sometimes chilling, strokes. This would not have surprised anyone who had experienced Kahn’s fearlessly aggressive stances when he took on Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 107 (first) cello concerto in E-flat major with the Conservatory Orchestra in October of 2016. However, while Shostakovich’s 1959 concerto was shaded by dark memories of Joseph Stalin, Barber was on active duty with the United States Army while the Second World War was nearing its conclusion when he received the commission to compose his cello concerto. This is not to suggest that the resulting concerto was “military” (although the only percussion instruments are timpani and snare drum); but one can plausibly interpret his rhetorical darkness has having emerged “under fire.” Whether or not Kahn was trying to make the case that this concerto deserves a full symphonic performance, last night’s presentation definitely left one wondering how such a performance would be experienced.

However, the Barber selection was not the only opportunity for discovery. Kahn began his program with the first movement (Vivace, ma non troppo) from Paul Klengel’s arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 78 (first) violin sonata. Brahms had composed this sonata in G major, but Klengel transposed it into D major.

Here, again, this entailed a venture into darker rhetorical territory. This piece is sometimes called the “Regensonate” (rain sonata) since Brahms drew upon his earlier “Regenlied” (rain song) as a thematic source. If this suggests a somewhat wistful sadness in the opening movement, Klengel’s retuned arrangement seems to exploit a new set of resonances afforded by the cello to shift the rhetorical stance towards a more intense melancholy. Kahn seems to have appreciated that Klengel preferred dark clouds to the rain itself, but he also knew not to overplay his hand. As a result, he never let the intensity of his own rhetoric descend into wallowing, making Klengel’s approach to Brahms as much of a journey of discovery as the Barber concerto was.

Listeners were probably on more familiar ground with Kahn’s performance of the first (Nicht zu schnell) movement of Robert Schumann’s Opus 129 concerto in A minor. Composed late in the composer’s life, this involved some highly impassioned writing for the cello; but here, again, Kahn knew how to keep the focus on the music itself without letting emotional intensity overwhelm. Indeed, it seemed as if emotions got the better of him only in his performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1011 solo suite in C minor. He clearly wanted to approach this music as more than a pedagogical exercise; but, in the course of doing so, he seemed to lose touch with Bach’s own strong feelings about the spirit behind all those different dance forms he had summoned for this composition.

Kahn was on much firmer ground when it came to balancing technical demands against rhetorical expressiveness in his performance of two of the solo caprices from Alfredo Piatti’s Opus 25. Piatti composed this set of twelve caprices in 1865, making them about half a century younger than Niccolò Paganini’s Opus 1 collection of 24 caprices for solo violin. Piatti clearly understood the spirit behind Paganini’s caprices; and, if Kahn’s selections were representative, Piatti understood just as clearly how to match that spirit with the cello. Kahn’s selections allows him to conclude his recital by setting off a few fireworks, somewhat in the spirit of making the encores part of the program itself.

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