April 2, 2004

Romanticism tempers Brahms and Beethoven for remarkable concert

It was easily one of the most remarkable concerts of the season, superbly programmed and brilliantly performed—the kind of event that leaves a critic with very little to say but much to discuss. Maxim Vengerov and Fazil Say interpreted the repertoire with a rare synthesis of drama and power—integrating their overarching, stereoscopic vision with an exquisite eye for detail.

They commenced with Bach's first violin sonata in B minor, BWV 1014, the first in a suite of six (technically, a suite of five, as the sixth does not conform to the general pattern of the cycle). This errant sonata, BWV 1019, contains five movements—instead of the established pattern of four—arranged in a slow-fast-slow-fast sequence. Music researchers have suggested that it was composed in three stages, initially conceived almost as a double concerto and later pared down to a sonata. However, it was published along with others in a volume entitled Sei Sounate a Cembalo certato e Violino Solo, and it was convenient to accept history's designation in this case.

Vengerov's luminous tone suffused the opening adagio with a touch of Stokowskian poetry and a delightful interpretive subjectivity. This provided a sharp contrast to Say's precise and rather academic rendition. His reverence for the composer was quite evident, but it seemed to prevent him from fully exploring the exuberance of the work. He handled it as one might handle a Da Vinci manuscript in the museum archives; with gloves, masks, and an awed, feather-light touch. His sound was enrobed with a patina of perfection that obscured the work's excitement, creating a reading that was interesting but too studied and cautious. Vengerov's Romanticism compensated for this to an extent —the lovely, almost Mozartean theme of the andante was poignantly portrayed—but this disparity in approach created a palpable tension, leaving the audience with a sense of two antipodal, simultaneously delivered viewpoints.

This division, however, paled to obscurity in light of their magnificent rendition of Brahms' second violin sonata, Op.100 in A major. The first movement commences with a theme conjectured by the piano, which the violin considers, comments upon, then suddenly seizes and develops to a deeply dramatic crest. This is one of the passages that make or break the movement—too little drama renders it insipid, and too much makes it hysterical. The section starts about a minute and a half into the piece, and the rest of the exposition's structure pivots around this dramatic dénouement. Very few performers get it precisely right. Vicissitudes abound, such as slipping into a barely controlled panic, or creating an air of blasé sophistication by taking it too conservatively.

Other such passages include the part where the violin interrupts the piano in a series of beautiful stretti in the development—when the instruments work themselves up into a veritable dance of frustration; the exquisite sweetness bursts from the desolate harmonies in the recapitulation; and the climactic, cadential figures in the violin emerge near the end of the movement. Vengerov and Say dealt with each perfectly. The expression, the intonation, the hints of rubato, the sweeping rhetoric and the sinuous lyricism were sublime. Say's fiery, impassioned declamations were worlds apart from his withdrawn Bach, as he exhorted the violin into ever greater heights of expression. The tightly controlled fury, white-hot fervor, and utter artless abandon made these passages—and by inference, the entire first movement—truly monumental.

The second movement is in rondo/ritornello form, consisting of three sets of andante/vivace episodes that explore some of the subsidiary themes from the first movement. The vivace sections revolve around a flickering, dramatic downward piano figuration which Say executed with Mephistophelian glee. The andante sections were built around a series of simple, quintessentially Brahmsian melodies, painted in warm, aureate tones by Vengerov. Say provided just the right amount of textural counterpoint—complementing and orienting his mellifluousness away from the saccharine.

I find the third movement very unsatisfying in terms of its philosophy. It seems like a desperate attempt to pull all the previously explored elements together with a forced and highly conflicted ending. However, in an interesting departure from traditional interpretive styles, Vengerov and Say reveled in the fragmentation instead of trying to explain the missing coherence. They allowed the naturally chaotic character of the music to express itself, giving the sonata a darkly unfinished aspect, as if the journey had ended with a query of "who knows…?" The music ended inconclusively, restlessly—a fitting end to a brooding work that speaks of impossible yearning and haunting uncertainty.

After the tortured self-questioning of the Brahms violin sonata, his well-knit Scherzo in C minor came as a relief, like a dose of Saki used to recover from Kafka. It sharply outlines its material, offering no explanations, merely a spotlight. Vengerov and Say gave a very dramatic reading, at times veering dangerously close to the hyperbolic (the idiomatic touches of rubato before an "important" chord are a case in point). These were unconventional, but somehow seemed to work in context, given their tempo and overall mood.

The program ended with Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata—one of the composer's monumental works in chamber music, ranking along with the late piano sonatas and string quartets. Vengerov and Say made this piece everything it should be, everything it ought to be, and everything it could be. The vision presented in the Kreutzer is perhaps more closely aligned with the surging hope and ecstasy in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony than with his darker and more destiny-oriented fifth, and Vengerov and Say explore its potential to the fullest. The looming first movement commences with a wistful, halcyon-like contemplation that develops into a tense allegro of fiery exultation. The second movement is composed of a set of variations. The first is perhaps the most sensitive, as it is open to being ruined through funereal tempi and excessive sentimentality. However, Vengerov and Say keep the textures light and the maudlin at bay, creating an exquisite, shimmering reading. The third variation is ironic, sometimes relentless and scathing with the quick, razor-sharp pen strokes that caricature the theme. Vengerov and Say attacked it at a faster tempo than most performers and executed it with wit and panache—a testament to their superb technique and artistic sensibility. The last movement overflowed with a sheer joie de vivre and bursting exuberance that made it a paean to life itself.

Their encores formed a mini-concert—the first was a spirited arrangement of Brahms' first Hungarian dance and the second, a quaint improvisational solo piece by Vengerov, in which he "illustrated" the popular children's tale of Ferdinand the Bull. The solo piece was an utterly unexpected and charming morceau, giving him a forum to once again demonstrate his uncanny ability to make the violin speak with an eloquent narrative voice. The final selection was Meditation from Massanet's opera Thaïs, a rapturous, elegantly simple reverie.

The exquisitely arranged program commenced with a highly organized and rational Bach. It rent the order asunder and turned it inwards, questioning every premise in the Brahms sonata and using the knowledge gleaned through exhaustive exploration to get to a new thesis: Beethoven's Kreutzer. Granted, their Bach was less than perfect, but that becomes immaterial when considered against their superlative performance during the rest of the concert.

If I were to characterize this performance with a single phrase, I would probably call it an "alchemical vivification." Vengerov and Say literally brought the works to life, imbuing them with character, force, and relevance. They effortlessly maintained the thread of thought of the program from inception to culmination. They afforded the audience a glimpse into what was artistically possible, venturing far beyond the realm of the merely probable.