Before beginning my account of the program that pianist Audrey Vardanega prepared for last night’s Old First Concerts recital at Old First Presbyterian Church, I would like to reflect a bit on one of the more impressive pianists of the twentieth century. I first really learned about William Kapell through an article in The New York Review of Books, which discussed RCA Victor’s release of Kapell’s complete authorized recordings as a nine-CD box set. Kapell was one of those child prodigies who went on to become one of the major pianists in the years following the Second World War. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 31 on October 29, 1953. He had just completed a tour of Australia, and his return flight crashed while trying to land in the San Francisco fog.
That RCA collection has only one CD of Kapell playing chamber music, but he kept some excellent company. The album consists of three sonatas, one each for violin, viola, and cello. The violinist was Jascha Heifetz playing Johannes Brahms’ Opus 108 in D minor. Violist William Primrose also played Brahms, the first (in F minor) of the Opus 120 sonatas originally written for clarinet. The cello sonata was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 19 in G minor with Edmund Kurtz taking the cello part.
I offer this as background to explain why last night’s concert left me with strong reverberations of nostalgia. Once again Vardanega prepared a program that involved making chamber music with colleagues. This time those colleagues were violist Gonzalo Martin Rodriguez and cellist Chase Park, the latter having played at Vardanega’s last O1C appearance this past August. Rodriguez played the same Brahms sonata that Primrose had recorded with Kapell; and Park played Rachmaninoff’s Opus 19 (only the first and third movements). Following the intermission all three of them played Brahms’ Opus 114 trio in A minor with Rodriguez again playing music originally written for clarinet. I have no idea whether Vardanega was familiar with the Kapell CD, but it was impossible for me to listen without reflecting on my own personal experiences.
Indeed, the Kurtz recording did much to draw my thinking about Rachmaninoff into a more favorable light. Rachmaninoff himself made it clear that this was not a sonata for cello with piano accompaniment. The piece was a conversation between equals; and it was easy for me to appreciate the extent to which this music was far more than the show-off piano virtuosity that had bombarded so many of my early listening experiences. Park and Vardanega could not have “conversed” better as equals (as they had already done last August); and the lyric qualities of the Andante (third) movement made for the perfect match of a keen command of technical detail with a shared approach to the depth of Rachmaninoff’s expressiveness.
Rodriguez’ sonata performance, which opened the program, was not quite as strong. Part of the problem was that Rodriguez’ dynamics could not always balance with the lid of Vardanega’s piano raised to full-stick height. As I have previously observed, the upper harmonics of a clarinet allow the instrument to penetrate through just about anything, while the viola is a far more subtle instrument. Playing with short-stick height probably would have allowed for better balance, which, in turn, would have given a better account of how Rodriguez and Vardanega had chosen to approach this sonata. Sadly, that account got lost in many of the more aggressive keyboard passages that Brahms had written.
Fortunately, the balance of the full trio after the intermission was much better established, even with the lid at full-stick height. As was the case with the Opus 120 sonata, there was still a sense that the clarinet had been the instrument that Brahms originally had in mind. Nevertheless, Rodriguez seemed more at home with the “phrase structure” of his part than he had been in his sonata performance. This may have been due in part to the richer blend of the two string players, establishing together a “rhetorical stance” that could collectively engage with the piano part. The result was an overall evening experience that may have been a bit weak at the beginning but then just kept getting better all the way through to the final flourishes of the trio performance.