Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New Bookends

Last night's recital by violinist Christian Tetzlaff accompanied by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, in Herbst Theatre under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, offered its least familiar material at the very beginning and in the encores. This is hardly the first time I attended a concert that began with "something new;" but it made for an interesting way to arrange the evening. Before the intermission, Johannes Brahms' D minor (Opus 108) violin sonata was preceded by the violin sonata of Leoš Janáček; and the program after the intermission consisted of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's F major (K. 377) violin sonata and Franz Schubert's B minor rondo brillant (D. 895), followed by two encores of "Danses Champêtres" (Opus 106, Number 5 and probably Number 1) by Jean Sibelius.

San Francisco has been a good place to learn how to listen to Janáček. During her tenure with the San Francisco Opera, Pamela Rosenberg offered three of his operas, Jenůfa, Káťa Kabanová, and The Cunning Little Vixen; and last June David Robertson conducted the San Francisco Symphony in an exquisite performance of his Taras Bulba "rhapsody." I last wrote about Janáček in a post on "nationalist" music, observing that the Oxford Dictionary of Music had classified him as sharing the "Bohemian" category with Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák. At that time I questioned whether Bohemia was actually ever a nation; but I think it is important to recognize that the conditions of Janáček's birth do not necessarily endow him with any "family resemblance" to either Smetana or Dvořák. His voice is very much a unique one, and the only way to get to know it is through exposure. So I am glad that San Francisco has provided me with a generous share of opportunities for such exposure, because through that exposure I could begin to feel a sense of familiarity with Janáček's violin sonata, even though this was the first time I heard it.

In the framework of yesterday's "self-evident truths about listening," that sense of familiarity clearly resided in "features of the general." Being more specific (to play with the words), there is a particular sense of fragmentation in Janáček's approach to melody. When I wrote about Taras Bulba, I talked about Janáček approaching music "as a structuring of 'sonorous objects;'" and, while this may be most apparent in his orchestral writing, it was clear that his violin sonata involved an intimate interplay of particularly characteristic sonorities that he wanted to capture in both violin and piano. To some extent one could call the melodies themselves "Bohemian," particularly in the first movement; but the second movement ("Ballada") had less of that "folk" sound and felt almost like a deliberate move away from the "exotic." Taken as a whole, I found the four movements a welcome addition to the repertoire of accompanied violin sonatas and would like nothing better than more opportunities to listen to performances; so I can begin to make the move from the general to the more specific, since there is clearly a richness of detail in this work just waiting to be explored.

The Brahms sonata was basically the warhorse of the evening, which is not meant as a dismissive observation. Andsnes is an awesome Brahms pianist; this was clear from his performance of the Opus 83 piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony this past spring. He brings a level of energy that dismisses all of those clichés about Brahms' "stale classicism;" and Tetzlaff reinforced that energy, even if that reinforcement led to a certain coarseness of sound. However, if this sonata is considered from that same "progressive" perspective that I applied to the concerto, then there is much to be said for a performance that goes out to (if not beyond) the threshold of "disciplined control." This is not to say that the performance was reckless, but it delivered a sense of abandon to the music that seemed to make for an entirely appropriate interpretation.

Ironically, there was a similar level of abandon in the Mozart sonata, particularly in its opening allegro. This is the work of Mozart in his twenties, still the show-off kid strutting his stuff in Vienna. Presumably Mozart himself performed the piano part, hopefully with a violinist who was up to the task of keeping up with him. Andsnes is now well out of his own twenties. However, he knew how to summon his "inner twenty-year-old" for this performance; and Tetzlaff was, once again, right there with him in the spirit of the occasion. This time, however, the performance was less about abandon and more about control, although that control was applied to a variety of impressive virtuoso feats. Nevertheless, that spirit of abandon returned in the Schubert rondo. This work was composed almost two years before Schubert's death at a time when he was being very adventurous about both formal structure and the "action" within the structure. Within that balancing act we encounter the same sorts of flirtations with madness that surface in so many of his songs, as well has his earlier D. 760 "Wanderer" fantasy; but, for all those flirtations, Schubert never gives up control. Thus, performance demands a "deliberate depiction" of the madness; and that is precisely the approach that Tetzlaff and Andsnes brought to their interpretation.

Finally, the encores threw a new light on Sibelius' approach to violin music. We ended the evening where we began, with one composer's decidedly individual approach to his own country's "nationalism." Thus, in spite of the French title, these works elicit the voice of the violin as Finnish folk instrument (which I once had occasion to hear in conjunction with a conference on cognitive musicology). Here any coarseness of sound was definitely part of that "nationalist" spirit, which again seemed to approach composition through "sonorous objects," but with an entirely different spectrum of sounds. It is not often the case that the unity of a program extends to its encores, but there is no doubt that Sibelius was as important a "bookend" for the entire evening as Janáček had been at the beginning.

No comments: