Monday, April 23, 2018

Midori Brings New Perspectives to the Details

Yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco (CMSF) presented the return of violinist Midori to San Francisco, appearing for the first time under CMSF auspices. Her program consisted of four sonatas for violin and piano, performed with accompanist Özgür Aydin. Midori currently holds the Jascha Heifetz Chair in the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (USC), where she serves as Distinguished Professor of Violin. (Heifetz himself held the honorary position of Regents Professor of Music at USC during the 1958–59 academic year. He later joined the faculty as Professor Music in 1961.)

It therefore seemed appropriate that three of the four sonatas that she performed were part of the vast legacy of recordings that Heifetz made with RCA. Indeed, one her selections, César Franck’s sonata in A major, was the first selection performed at Heifetz’ final recital at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on October 23, 1972, which may be the only Heifetz release that was not recorded under studio conditions. The other two sonatas recorded by RCA filled the second half of the program, Franz Schubert’s D. 408 in G minor (a four-movement composition that Otto Erich Deutsch lists as a sonatina) and Ottorino Respighi’s B minor sonata. The only offering that was not in the RCA catalog was the first one, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 547 sonata in F major, his final composition for violin and piano. (Heifetz recorded only two of the many violin sonatas that Mozart wrote between his childhood and his final decade in Vienna.)

Since I am fortunate enough to possess the CD release of the entire canon of RCA Heifetz recordings, I am happy to state with confidence that Midori never showed the slightest sign of channeling (or even trying to channel) Heifetz’ spirit. Her interpretation of every sonata was uniquely her own, and that uniqueness often disclosed fascinating new insights. This was most evident in her approach to the Franck sonata.

She took a discursive approach to her phrasing that may not have been consistent with Franck’s own approaches to performance. Nevertheless, it disclosed to the attentive listener unique insights as to how each phrase was shaped, leading to a sense of inquiry that pervades the first three movements and is only resolved in the final movement when the composer falls back on one of the earliest polyphonic techniques, that of canon. The result was one of those rare occasions when past familiarity was blown away by new perspectives bringing priority to details of the composition that had not previously been explicitly realized through previous interpretations.

Equally impressive was her approach to the Respighi sonata. This piece is performed so seldom that all of my knowledge of it comes from that one Heifetz recording. However, Midori communicated a sense of unity of the whole that never came across quite as strongly on the recording (perhaps because that recording was a product of several disjoint studio sessions). Midori made it clear that the very opening gesture became the spinal cord of the entire sonata, returning in the following two movements but never forcing itself on the listener’s attention. The affect was one of an intimate exchange of thoughts, a rhetorical stance that those who know Respighi through his tone poems would not associate with him.

The “First Viennese School” selections on the program may have been more familiar (in spirit, if not in flesh); but they still both enjoyed fresh interpretations. Midori’s approach to phrasing her Mozart seemed to suggest its transitional qualities, almost as if the music was beginning to chart the path that Schubert would later follow. Particularly interesting was the scrupulous attention to dynamics in the Mozart performance, making it clear that both violin and piano were on equal terms. That approach to “division of labor” would return across the full canon of violin sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven; and Schubert would then continue that strategy in his D. 408.

The overall result was a highly satisfying journey through the violin sonata repertoire, capped off by an unannounced encore that I do not think I have encountered in any of the many recordings that Heifetz made of short pieces. There was a clear sense of ragtime though the presence of at least one Scott Joplin trope. However, the overall effect did not suggest that this was an arrangement of a Joplin piano rag.

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