The violin and piano duo of Augustin Hadelich and Orion Weiss played Debussy, Brahms, and Adams for the Tanglewood cameras Saturday. With talent to spare, the artistic pair gave exciting, tight, enthralling, and even transcendent readings.
The Debussy Violin Sonata stood out in particular, with exquisite ensemble, a transparent interpretation, and a level of virtuosity that let the duo dwell in the work like their own private artistic sandbox. Despite the myriad technically challenging passages and rapid shifting tempi and rhythms, violin and piano both exhibited a level of mastery so complete as to permit them a generous measure of freedom and leisure to lead the music rather than merely navigating through it. Hadelich commanded both a richness in his sul tasto and an effervescence in his soft playing that each technique enjoyed a multiplicity of levels. While often a string can become so soft it disappears into the piano texture, Hadelich imbued his playful pianissimos with such buoyancy that they seem magically to linger on, even in measures of rest for the violin. Weiss’s nimble left hand showed complete comfort in the second movement’s jolly bassline, and their blink-and-you-miss it approach to the final strain amused as if cherry atop a sundae of sonic deliciousness.
The themes of Brahms’s A Major Sonata borrow liberally from the melodies he was concurrently composing for his Op. 105, interweaving a complex lyricism into its otherwise abstract musical fabric. Indeed, the first movement plays out like the tale of a songsmith on a cruise, persisting to ply his craft amid shifting sea conditions. But Brahms is still Brahms, Lied influence or not, and if one criticism could be leveled (on a concert which admittedly was damn near perfect), it is that levels of engagement with Brahms suffered from a focus on lyricism. That is not hint at any flaws in technique or lackluster interpretation, but simply that it could have been more. Like an old fresco which is marveled at until it is cleaned and then leaves one breathless, this tableau could have benefited from a “digging deeper” into the sinewy element which can only be rightfully described as Brahmsian-ness.
They did manage many colors and evoked much mental imagery: the formal song-like second movement’s principal theme was always slightly agitated, and when the second theme jumped into flurry of activity (akin to the divertimento element in the 2nd movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto), one got the feeling of a character actively keeping busy to distract themselves from something they’d rather not face. That’s a pretty complex image for a few bars of music and is commendable in itself, but to crib Kipling, “It’s striking, but is it Brahms”?
John Adams might very well be remembered someday as the man who saved minimalism (from itself), by tempering it in to a tool instead of revering it as a religion. If such music Master Raro’s as Berg (the serial) and Lutoslawski (the aleatoric) “tool not a school” embodied this technique, then Adams, by using the techniques of minimalism as a tool, not only saved his own music from pedantry but also successfully opened entirely new audiences not only to this style, but alto to classical music in general. The result is often music which has an endemic rhythmic drive, is repetitious enough for the modern ear to digest, yet dynamic enough to turn on a dime while respecting its own groove. Weiss and Hadelich wore his tour de force Road Movies (1995) like a tailored suit. The opening Relaxed Groove moto perpetuo-piano gave occasional scope to ephemeral violin interjections, before they synchronized (ironically the former texture is far more challenging to pull off). It then evaporated into something Meditative — the piano reciting a contemplative mantra while the violin vocalized a phrase akin to the theme of the Ravel Violin and Cello Sonata. The duo’s emphasis on the unique angularity made it initially and incredibly sound upside down or retrograde. The finale, with its hand-over-hand piano propulsion and head-nodding drive, stayed tightly in the pocket. One pondered what would happen to his brain if this movement, called 40% Swing, rose to a higher a percentage.
Available online until August 1st.
Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.