Was it the somber post-Sandy mood that influenced the program? Of course not, as it must have been determined months before. But it was nevertheless fitting to have all but one (Chopin’s D-flat major Nocturne) of the works in minor keys. And actually, D flat major is a pretty subdued, even dark key as well. And of all the minor keys, G minor is probably one of the most “positive” in spirit – witness Mozart’s piano quartet in that key, certainly a strong and grave composition, but not a sad one, I think. Listen to it and see if you agree. So, I couldn’t help thinking this concert was a sort of survival hymn – yes, we suffered tremendously, but we are fighting back.
Alice Tully Hall was almost full, another sign of resilience. I like the place more and more. It is a thoroughly modern hall, architecturally and acoustically. You see and hear well from every seat. The wood panelling is simple, beautiful and warm. The seats are comfortable and there is room to stretch one’s legs. I much prefer it to Avery Fisher Hall, of which I have spoken elsewhere.
The two-movement Mozart Sonata in E minor, which he composed shortly after the death of his mother, is a a beautiful but sad piece, with an almost anguished first movement and a contemplative second. The two young performers, Inon Barnatan and Arnaud Susskind did it full justice, especially in the second movement. In the first, I found the pianist a little abrupt and the ensemble at times rocky. But as I now listen to Perlman and Barenboim, I realize that in this movement,the piano is probably meant to be harsh at times and that there is a considerable amount of tension between the two instruments, all of which lead to this feeling of distress. In the Minuet, everything was smoothed out and it was just perfect, even more so than the above-mentioned prestigious duo I’m listening to now. The performers both found an exquisite delicacy coupled with meticulous articulation.
In the Chopin Nocturnes that followed, Barnatan confirmed his talent and sensitivity, and also his indubitable sense of style. He infused his playing with the necessary Romantic brooding, but remained within the boundaries of good taste. Nocturne no. 8, arguably one of Chopin’s best known pieces, was anything but trite. Barnatan would go on to prove his expertise throughout the evening.
But then, still for Chopin, this time his sonata for cello and piano, he was joined by cellist Alisa Weilerstein. I don’t remember where I had heard Ms. Weilerstein before, but I had a vague recollection of being less than thrilled. There is no doubt that she has a pretty good technical command of her instrument, but I really don’t think she puts it to good use. Of course, I can be very critical when it comes to the cello as I have quite an intimate relationship with the instrument. Although I myself am not a very proficient player (and that is an understatement), I absolutely know what I want to hear. And, vice versa, what I don’t want to hear. What most disturbed me was the cellist’s excessive and tight vibrato, which made her tone wobbly most of the time, like some over the hill singers. I kept longing for relief, but it never came. Practically every single note was vibrated, which not only gave the tone that unsteady characteristic, but also interfered with the phrasing. The result was that the whole sonata lacked clarity and focus. Ms. Weilerstein’s equally excessive body language added to the feeling of dispersed energy, in the sense that all the feeling seemed to go more into her movements and facial expressions than into her musical output. I kept wishing I could find something to like, as I hate to see talent wasted, and I finally did – her intonation was excellent. Don’t take that for granted, it is not that rare to hear even the best go astray.
Speaking of the sonata itself, I have read comments as to its not being very “Chopinesque”. I don’t think I fully agree, or even half agree, for that matter. To me, it sounds infused with Chopin’s longing and suffering (as in the Largo) and sometimes with his patriotic heroism (as in the first movement, Allegro Moderato).
The Smetana piano trio which came after the intermission is certainly also an almost tragic piece, written after the loss of his little girl. It was rendered with competence by the three musicians. The performance brought together their idiosyncrasies and again, I was quite taken by the pianist and the violinist, while I wished for a soberer cellist.