Silver medalist from 1998 returns in IVCI's Laureate Series

A salute to Ferruccio Busoni on his death centenary rubbed shoulders with Beethoven's last violin-piano sonata Tuesday night when Liviu Prunaru came back to the scene of his 1998 silver-medal triumph in the International  Violin Competition of Indianapolis .

Secure musical partnership: Liviu Prunaru and Chih-Yi Chen

The Romanian violinist, who has crowned his career of solo engagements around the world with the concertmastership of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, offered major works by those trailblazing figures in the IVCI's Laureate Series, with Chih-Yi Chen at the piano, at the Indiana History Center.

The program was filled out by two lighter pieces, Saint-Saens' "Havanaise," the most popular artistic representation of the habanera dance form outside the one the title character sings in Bizet's "Carmen," and Antonio Bazzini's virtuosic showpiece "Calabrese." (That might have to take second place in pizazz to his "Dance of the Goblins," a late-night TV performance of which decades ago got this concise response from host Johnny Carson: "Itzhak Perlman! Wow!")

The recital opened with a performance of one of J.S. Bach's most cherishable tunes, the Arioso from Cantata No. 156. Prunaru's expressively tapered phrasing made the short piece a fitting prelude to Busoni's Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor, op. 36a, which lifts up Bach in its lengthy finale. It's a true duo of wide expanse in which the pianist showed the depth of her affinity with Prunaru's artistry.

I would have liked a spikier interpretation from the violinist. His silken phrasing applied well to some parts of the work, but seemed a pale representation of the folk dance in the second movement, for instance. The first movement, chockfull of variety, was overall understated. The variations movement that ends the work had just the right poise and mood of reverence from both players.

Interpretive consistency was never a problem, of course, and Prunaru's technical elan included an undetectable change of bow direction where the musical line privileges such a skill. It's a distant memory, but another IVCI silver medalist came to mind for the seamless quality of Prunaru's upbow/downbow transitions: Leonidas Kavakos from 1986.

To me, Prunaru was more in his element in Beethoven's Sonata No. 10 in G major, op. 96. When superlative Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon discusses this work's composition in the 1812 outburst that included the creation of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, he says eloquently that it constrasts as "a delicate pen-and-ink drawing to a set of major frescoes."

Chen and Prunaru sustained a mutually supportive feeling with the music's gentle temperament. They matched tone especially well in the Adagio expressivo. After the vivid, concise Scherzo came a variations finale. In contrast to the similar form of the Busoni finale, this one eschewed somberness and moved to a witty, exuberant conclusion.

"Havanaise" provided a welcome indication that Prunaru is a fit interpreter of dashing as well as reflective music. And the performers underlined the traditional progress of recital programs from heavy to light with the Bazzini, and then two encores: Faure's "Apres un reve" to settle things down, then Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 17 to offer a winning mixture of lively and lyrical.


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