|The prodigy today - it's not about her, it's about the music.|
We haven't heard from the great violinist Midori in these parts for some time - maybe a decade? So her return to the Hub was most welcome last week - thanks to Celebrity Series, in a program of sonatas for violin and piano (or were they for piano and violin?) with Turkish-American pianist Özgür Aydin.
Midori is now far from her prodigy days; but if she was once a prodigy, she was never a diva, as you could tell by her "well-if-I-have-to" gown, and the no-nonsense way she wore her hair at Symphony. That attitude was all the clearer when you scanned her program - mostly Beethoven, who of course was a pianist, not a violinist, and whose sonatas are exquisitely balanced between the two instruments. There would be no showboating or hogging the spotlight here! And Midori and Aydin truly played as one - a sophisticated classicism was their shared keynote; although a seeming chill between them onstage made me often wonder if it wasn't Midori who was really calling the shots.
Still, Aydin was always subtle and responsive, and his touch was superb - while Midori has lost none of her peerless command, and by now has learned how to infuse her technical perfection with feeling (even fire). It was the program itself that sometimes puzzled; in between distractions from Webern and Crumb, you could limn a rough (rough) arc corresponding to Beethoven's development - still, even this arc was highly arguable; you could easily read the "Kreutzer" as an unexpected outburst rather than the end of this chain of development. What's more, until we got to the finale, the programming choices felt diffuse, and persistently small in scale.
This doesn't mean there weren't many pleasures along the way. The opener was Op. 12, no. 2, in A major - written when the young genius was still under the clear influence of Haydn. Thus the piece is light and warmly urbane, almost breezy; the instruments intertwine in a sophisticated call and response, and there's a sweet melody anchoring the closing rondo. It's hard to believe it was written at the same time that Beethoven was first admitting to himself that he was losing his hearing - the emotional pressure of that terrible realization would only later crack open the form of his musical approach. Still, for Midori's listeners, those storms were easy to forget, as she and Aydin sailed through the opus with attentive sympathy.
Next came a curious interlude from Webern, his Four Pieces (Op. 7), which taken together last only a few minutes. Clearly Webern intended the work as a concentrated, destabilizing miniature, and Midori in particular played in daring pianissimo, as parts of the composition are marked by Webern himself as "barely audible" (this was chamber music designed for a far smaller chamber than Symphony Hall). Whether its diminutive intensity had its intended effect in that large space remains an open question (the sheer quiet of the piece reminded me again of Beethoven's deafness, but the connection there seemed very oblique).
Midori and Aydin then returned to the great Ludwig van - this time the later Op 30, No. 1, in A Major, which is rarely heard in the concert hall. And I'm afraid that despite their lovely rendering, I understand why; the sonata boasts a singing, almost dreamily bucolic opening, but it's structured in a set of repetitions of approximately equal weight and intensity, and so seems to meander slightly.
Next came a more recent obscurity: George Crumb's Four Nocturnes (Night Music II), which is much of its era (the early 1960's), and milieu; it's essentially another postmodern miniature from the academy (where Crumb has spent most of his career). It calls for various fiddling with the piano's mechanics, the better to exploit its "timbral resources" - which led to an amusing opening moment when the audience assumed Mr. Aydin was administering an emergency repair to his instrument. The piece proved sweet, and certainly harmless - it's a gentle evocation of night sounds, from the chirp of a waking bird to the random creaks of an old house settling on its foundation. But again, one got the impression of an attempt at the kind of intimacy that's hard to sustain in a hall the size of Symphony.
Finally we got to the "Kreutzer" (Op. 47), a "sonata" statement so grand it feels like a mini-concerto. This is one of those Beethoven masterpieces that does indeed seem to "crack" and spill over its own form - perhaps partly because it was written in great haste (Beethoven was still filling in the first two movements at curtain time of the premiere). It's famous for its emotional intensity, of course, and the sense of impassioned argument (rather than conversation) between the violin and piano. This kind of thing used to be thought of as Midori's weak spot, but she was fiercely committed here, and utterly dominant. The audience burst into applause after the first movement - then something of the earlier poise and gentility returned in the later variations (was that the underlying point of the program?), but the furious finale brought the crowd to its feet.
The duo returned for two encores, both of them showpieces for violin - a lovely arrangement of Debussy's familiar "Girl with the Flaxen Hair," and the inevitable Kreisler, "Tambourin Chinois," selections which seemed to hint at the young, sparkling Midori of years past, and brought the afternoon to a satisfying close. We hope it won't be a decade before we see her again.