Last night at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Sunset Music | Arts presented what appears to be the final chamber music concert of its 2016 season. The performers were violinist Kate Stenberg and pianist Sarah Cahill. The program spanned a wide range of music history with sonatas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at one end (1784) with his K. 454 in B-flat major and Henry Cowell (1945) at the other, with Johannes Brahms (Opus 100 in A major, composed in 1886) and Claude Debussy (his last extended work, composed in 1917) between those extremes.
Note the absence of the noun “accompanist” and the use of the noun “sonatas” without any modifiers. This was recital whose program sheet was prepared in a way that respected the differing priorities of the different composers. Thus, while the Debussy and Cowell pieces were listed as “Sonata for Violin and Piano,” the way one usually expects, the ordering of the instruments was reversed for both Mozart and Brahms. According to the report included in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, K. 454 was originally published in Vienna in 1784 in a set of three sonatas. The first two were for keyboard solo; and the (rather wordy) title page then continues, “La troisieme est accomp. d’un Violon oblg.” (the third is accompanied by an obligato violin). Since Mozart enjoyed his reputation as a virtuoso keyboardist, he may well have provided this wording that describes the violinist as the “accompanist.” Similarly, the original title page provided by N. Simrock for Opus 100 lists the piano before the violin, possibly again in recognition of Brahms’ reputation as a pianist.
One might therefore say that last night’s program was well-balanced with “primary attention” shared equally between the two performers. However, this would be unfair to the spirit of chamber music, which is (or at least ought to be) less a matter of “who is in charge” and more one of how music emerges through mutual agreement among shared perspectives. Yes, one could detect signs of Mozart (not yet thirty) still channelling the rambunctious spirits of a decade earlier; but last night’s performance was more about give-and-take exchanges on a more level playing field. As a result it was clear that Stenberg had as much of a voice in where the music was going as Cahill did (even if the latter was kept busier with more notes on the page).
Indeed, this was consistently the case throughout the evening. The Brahms and Debussy sonatas were performed back-to-back during the second half of the program; but neither case showed significant signs of one performer having priority over the other. More interesting was that, given the significant differences in surface structure between these two sonatas, both were interpreted with a personal intimacy that ran far deeper than any of the surface features. Even the wide differences in the composers’ personalities seemed to recede into a background, whose foreground was focused primarily on how two voices of decidedly different sonorous qualities could come into so much harmonious agreement.
The one anomaly of the evening was the Cowell sonata. This was written for Joseph Szigeti, and it would appear from Cowell’s correspondence that working on it was not an easy matter. Mind you, Szigeti had taken an interest in the violin sonatas of Charles Ives, but Cowell was even more of an outlier than Ives. Thus, while the pianist has to use his/her fingers to mute some of the strings in the final movement, there are few signs of the adventurous (if not outrageous) spirit behind Cowell’s earlier piano music. Instead, the music is highly melodic, drawing heavily on Cowell’s “world music” interests with a particular focus on Irish styles. The result is far more affable than what one usually expects of Cowell, but that affability certainly resonated with the approach that Stenberg and Cahill took to performance. One has to wonder whether a violinist as austere as Szigeti would have warmed to that sort of rhetorical stance.
That spirit of world music was maintained in the encore for last night’s recital. This was the final movement from Alan Hovhaness’ Khirgiz Suite, composed in 1947 and published as Opus 73, Number 1. Hovhaness was Armenian on his father’s side and Scottish on his mother, both countries with lively folk traditions. In this case the music reflected the same sorts of Armenian influences that surface so often in the music of Aram Khachaturian. However, while Khachaturian was inclined to throw everything but the kitchen sink into his orchestral ensembles, Hovhaness could express himself just as effectively through chamber music; and last night’s encore selection presented this seldom-performed modernist in the best possible light.