Monday, March 2, 2009

Steeped in the Classicals: Mozart Lives and Shostakovich Dies at the 92nd St. Y

Posted By on Mon, Mar 2, 2009 at 10:00 AM

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Steeped in the Classicals is a new classical music column by Henry Stewart. Call him an elitist, or an anti-elitist, or both, or neither, in the comments.

As late as Thursday afternoon, I planned to use this space to declaim my distaste for Mozart's "Sonata for Violin and Piano in B-Flat Major" (K. 454, 1784). But after seeing and hearing the piece performed that evening at the 92nd St. Y, I had a change of heart.

Pinchas Zukerman, Israel-born and Juilliard-trained, is one of the foremost violinists bowing away in the world today. I last saw him live two years ago, backed by the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven's stalwart "Violin Concerto". (You know, the one in D-Major?) Suffice to say that at the end, I was moved to lift my moratorium on standing ovations.


On Thursday night, Zukerman, in his only NY recital of the year, was no less impressive. Mozart's music suffers from what I'll call The Bach Problem. With few and notable exceptions — Symphony No. 25, the Requiem Mass — so much of his music sounds the same: playful-yet-civilized major key buoyancy, bordering on the banal. Along those lines, the B-Flat Major Sonata is quintessential Mozart, and something of a fan favorite. It's light-hearted: the violin and piano often compete, like dueling banjos for the bourgeoisie. The instruments harmonize then urge one another on, like two old friends — think Astaire and Rogers — challenging the other to improvise.

Zukerman, accompanied by longtime collaborator Marc Neikrug (his Rogers, if Rogers was a man with a moustache and ponytail), managed to make Amadeus' familiar formulas sound fresh: each phrasing, each dynamic shift, each athletic climb up the scales conveyed an idiosyncratic passion. This was not a man playing off the page, but one producing sounds from the maturity and emotional wisdom acquired during 40 years of professional performance. And 60 years of living.

The violinist distinguished himself again in the evening's penultimate piece, César Franck's "Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major" (1886). (The duo finished the evening with an unannounced encore, which turned out to be a highlight of the evening: a short, funereal composition by the Czech composer Josef Suk—Antonin Dvorák's son-in-law.) Franck's Sonata is tender and effusive, with intermittent rhythmic passages that border on Concert Hall Jazzy, presaging George Gershwin by several decades.

Best known for organ works, Franck, a Belgian-born Frenchman, shows here a knack for carefully building up to sweeping expressions of joy, proving himself a master of the classic conflict-and-resolution model of composition. In the first movement (Allegretto ben moderato), the violin's swelling major-key melodies collapse, several times, into uncertain diminished chords, before rising into well-earned catharses in the upper register, which the piano celebrates with cheerful, chordal victory laps. This piece was the only one of the evening that called for pianist Neikrug to flex his chops, and he did so with dexterous glee.

The Franck exuded a romantic brashness, declaring its emotions upfront and overtly, in quivering, lachrymose passages. It did not hide its feelings in the spaces between the notes (for no one to find), as did Toru Takemitsu's "From Far Beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog" (1983), an atonal, post-intermission trifle. It was sounds without context, conjuring no sonic referent; in images, it sounded like a man crying on the floor, occasionally moaning or rolling about while shouting. For seven minutes. (Afterwards, the sweet and chatty elderly woman on my right noted that everyone else in our row had left, perhaps in anticipation.) It is meant more for graduate thesis dissections than general concert hall appreciation.

Before intermission, Zukerman and Neikrug pounded through Dmitri Shostakovich's "Sonata for Viola and Piano" (Op. 147, 1975). The 20th Century's most important Russian composer — arguably best known for his Fifth Symphony — Shostakovich was routinely chastised, and censored, by Stalin-era authorities for composing pieces too complex for proletariat audiences. That strikes most as loathsome, but Takemitsu might have benefited from a little state-sponsored oppression.

Shostakovich's Sonata, for which Zukerman switched to viola, was the Russian's final composition before his death, and it sounds like a final formalist fuckoff to the Politburo: a difficult, bitter and ultimately ear-wearying piece that conveys a lifetime's worth of fury and despair. The first movement (Moderato) leaps between slow, plaintive melodies and assaultive flashes of anger: on the viola, notes are plucked, squealed and shrieked before they slip back into sad, sighing strings. Zukerman broke a few horsehairs on his bow.

In the second movement (Allegretto), the work's highlight, the viola seizures through a virtuosic fit of caterwaul, infrequently catching its breath to join the piano in a few measures of dissonant though settled-down melody. The back and forth produces a measure of suspense — when will the piece explode again? The third movement (Adagio) is intended as an homage to Beethoven, Shostakovich's first significant musical inspiration; musically, it frequently evokes the "Moonlight Sonata," if that piece had been written by, well, er, Shostakovich, as the movement shoots off into wildly dissonant viola soliloquies, which Zukerman handled with spirited proficiency.

Each movement ends bluntly, without resolution or grandeur. They simply die, like Shostakovich would a month after the work's completion. (Tchaikovsky's final work, the Sixth Symphony, also ends, uncharacteristically, with a whimper.) The Shostakovich Sonata's screeching rage made me feel like I might collapse myself, though my seat neighbor experienced a different response. "It put me to sleep," she said.

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