Wednesday, September 10, 2014

IVCI preliminary round on Tuesday: Focusing on the accompanied pieces, chiefly the enduring power of Mozart

Mozart's two-movement sonatas for violin and piano (K. 301-305) don't present the interpretive challenges that the unaccompanied violin works of Bach and Paganini do. That is, they aren't the same kind of interpretive challenges that must be addressed by the 37 participants in the ninth quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.


They aren't simple pieces, despite their clarity and graspable forms. They are sometimes flecked in mood with nagging uneasiness in the midst of their sunniest moments.  It was astonishing to feel how much freshness could still be brought forward after the umpteenth iteration  of the Sonata in G major, K. 301.

And most crucially, the competition's requirement that one of them be played in the preliminaries  makes of this stage a miniature chamber-music round. How well can a violinist craft something of a credible blend with a pianist? Talented fiddlers who go their own way when there's a piano behind them won't go far — in or out of competitions.

The question becomes all the more worth answering at the initial stage when you consider that Mozart modeled this set of sonatas on popular harpsichord-violin duets by Joseph Schuster: duets — not showcases  for the violin. And Mozart's sonatas originally offered the further dilution of string-instrument prominence with the option to add a cello.

In these sonatas, what I am listening for to confirm a violinist's fitness is a genuine duo sensibility. There isn't a wasted note in either the piano or the violin part. I liked performances where the two instruments matched expression and phrasing. And I preferred those in which the violin never soared into prominence, even on long notes in a swelling phrase. Since accompanying figures and the "main event" alternate so often between the two instruments, it seemed vital to me that there be no showboating by the violinist. And when you're given an obvious accompaniment figure, you don't fade or take sparkle off your tone to make your next turn in the spotlight seem more dazzling.

Stephen Kim
An intimate, joint expression of the music is the ideal, one evident in Stephen Kim's performance of that G major sonata with Nelson Padgett. Intimacy, and a joined-at-the-hip presentation, serve this music best. In the minuet of that work, there are back-to-back descending phrases with the instruments alternating who has the top line. I wouldn't make a fetish of it, but I loved it when the violinist played the upper notes with no more intensity than the lower notes.

It's like two players singing the same aria, with the piano fortunate enough to define the harmonic motion and ornament the melody. There's no need for a participant to remind the audience: "Hey, this is for a Violin Contest!" When the pianist has a remarkable tone and unerring ability to phrase, a listener still doesn't want to be tempted to hear the violin as an obbligato instrument getting a bit in the way. In Shannon Lee's performance of the E minor sonata, K. 304, I couldn't help focusing on the pianist (De Silva) more than on her. She showed flexibility and good inflection, but some phrases were too loud for the context. The vitality in De Silva's playing needed to be taken as an invitation to true partnership, not to play out all the more.

The difficulty of finding this balance may be the reason behind the rarity of the Sonata in C major, K. 303, in this competition. We first heard it at the end of the day Tuesday, when Wonyoung Jung played it, accompanied by De Silva. I can just imagine so many teachers saying to their prospective IVCI participants: "No, dear, we don't even have to consider K. 303 — it's all about the piano. And you can never be sure the pianist will make you look good. Let's work on the G major!" But there could not have been a better partner than De Silva in this music; Jung had plenty of opportunity to display her musicality, even if so much of the flash and dash had to remain in the pianist's capable hands.


When you bring your own pianist along (a complex decision with some negatives to balance the obvious advantages), you can get some great results: I was thoroughly charmed by Dominika Przech's performance of the A major sonata, K. 305, with her fellow Pole,  Radoslaw Kurek, at the keyboard. The level of mutual trust and what appeared to be a concept of the piece held in common worked wonders in bringing off an impressive performance.

I can't permit myself much space to survey the other preliminary-round music requiring a pianist: the short encore piece. These are properly about the violin — and at its tenderest and most seductive. It's  been hard to recall an inadequate performance in the first three days. The competition offers a wide choice, and there is such an array of composers and styles among the choices that every violinist can find a perfect match. So I'm only going to compare two violinists, with the sneaky intention of saying a little more about Bach and Paganini.

Kristi Gjezi
Back to back we heard Kristi Gjezi and Vladyslava Luchenko present Tchaikovsky's "Melodie" from "Souvenir d'un lieu cher." I am more partial to a "cool" Tchaikovsky than many, as the feeling is so thoroughly embedded in the music it doesn't need much emphasis: my favorite recording of the Fifth Symphony, for example, is an old LP I own of  that cool customer Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. So I may have liked Gjezi's rather sober "Melodie" more than many in the audience, but I'll concede that the warmer, more supple approach of Luchenko was more idiomatic. Still, anytime someone can lower the temperature in Tchaikovsky without turning off the stove entirely, I'm intrigued.

Vladyslava Luchenko
 I was looking forward to hearing the contest's first rendition of the Adagio and Fugue from Bach's C major sonata for unaccompanied violin. And Gjezi gave a thoroughly winning account: The introductory slow movement is the most moving among the three sonatas, and the fugue is the most complex. A dutiful performance can seem merely to underscore the epithet applied to Bach by one of his modern biographers — "the learned musician" — but Gjezi made the music interesting throughout. The rewards of this selection take considerable work and insight to bring to the fore, and this Albanian-French violinist was unfaltering in doing so.

Finally, the most delightful Paganini I've heard so far came from Luchenko.  Her No. 17 was full of character, with a tempo-inflected change of direction at the end of many phrases that was quite charming. The fingered octaves were right on the money, too.  And in No. 9, I was gratified to hear her imitate flutes, then horns, as the composer stipulated. in the opening phrases. You can't just vary the dynamic level to make such a contrast; you have to adapt your tone to approximate those wind instruments.

I'll be looking for more fresh interpretations today, the last of the preliminary round, and — as I noted in my first competition post — evidence that these young violinists "catch the drift" of the music they play.