Friday, March 17, 2006

New Reading of Cesar Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano

When Cesar Franck finally obtained his French citizenship in 1886, the year when he wrote his sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano, which was one of my favorite, he was 64, only four years before his death. Some critics say the sonata by the French composer has the spirit directly descendent from great German-Austrian tradition with its standard structure, composer’s favorite cyclic form and the canon in the last movement. However, the music, like other French masterpieces (for both music and painting), is crafted, chiseled and polished in such an exquisite level that any attempt to conjecture or deliver philosophical thoughts is doomed to fail.

I haven’t listened to Franck’s work that much besides his Symphony in D Minor and his sonata. The composer, in my mind, never grips or bursts his emotion. His music with undulating melody lines is relaxed, sometimes serious sometimes humorous. And that is exactly how the pair of Kyung-Wha Chung and Radu Lupu makes their performance a classical legend. Kyung-Wha Chung opts for smoothness at the cost of dynamics, echoed by poetic playing from Lupu. Decca’s recording, as usual with its unique extraordinarily deep sound, adds mystery and obscurity to the performance. The final movement by the duo is spectacular, competent and playful at the same time. It feels like Chung is running away excitingly, but is always caught up by Lupu with equal ardor.

I had never thought I would seek another interpretation until I listened to Perlman & Argerich’s live performance from radio. In the 3rd movement, Perlman plays in such a rich and oily tone that it totally overturned my opinion about the serenity of the piece. If Chung is restrained but refined and somewhat detached, Perlman’s violin is sweet and sensual, therefore more expressive.

That experience pushed me to reexamine my CD. This time I was a little disappointed. I am not a big fan of Radu Lupu. He plays everything too soft. It is true as a “pianist poet” one should not shout, but mostly his light sound is closer to stale and sloppy than the acclaimed dreamy and sensitive and in particular his performance here is tamed and bland, even worse is muddled by Decca’s famous spacious sound stage.

I ended my shopping adventure with my final unexpected prey: A duo by Sarah Chang and Lars Vogt. I want to know the interpretation from musicians at my age. Lars Vogt was going to give Mozart’s piano concerto No. 23 on Mar 17 and Sarah Chang will bring the fierce powerful Sibelius the week after: I have the great odd of getting both musicians’ names signed on the single CD.

After listening to it several times, I have to appreciate the young musicians’ courage to give such a fresh perspective view to the over-played piece. After all, they will be compared with so many pairs of masters: Besides Chung and Lupu, there are Oistrakh &Richter, Grumiaux & Sebok, and formidable Heifetz. But to my surprise, Chang and Vogt excell in their breathable phrasing, vigorous emotion and wide dynamics. It is amazing to know that even for a piece that has been played for so many times, there is still room for a new reading.

First, just for sound quality sake, there is no reason not to support young artists. EMI’s recording captures every subtlety and make the sound warm and broad. This, on the other hand, provides some challenge to the audio system and the listeners. Sarah Chang’s volume ranges from faintly detectable to loud, it is easy to get tired if attention has not been fully paid or the audio system cannot span the range.

Famous for her boldness, Sarah may not compete with Perlman’s richness or Chung’s refinement. Instead, she calibrates her phrasing with great flexibility (almost to a micro level) and interweaves hushed beauty and transcendent ecstasy together. At first it is hard for me to accept the dynamic range after being used to Chung’s serenity. However, the dynamics (the change of tonality, tempo and volume), although surprising (or more precisely unusual) in itself, never really surprises me when the time of such change comes: Sarah’s dynamics justifies its own validity in the whole context level.

It is actually Lars Vogt that make the performance unique and awe-inspiring. I hadn’t heard of Lars before I looked at the schedule of the music season. Lars began his career after winning second place in Leed’s Piano Competition. (Interestingly, Lupu once was the top winner of the Competition) He was appointed as “Pianist In Residence” by BPO to revise piano chamber program and collaborate with Simon Rattle. In his just released Mozart piano sonatas CD, he shows vigorous rhythms through an emphasized left hand– though not as much as what Glenn Gould did. On the concert night, he played Mozart’s No. 23 piano concert with nuance, passion and energy. He swayed his body following the orchestra’s singing in the first movement and burst in the last Allegretto, but sat still when playing the darker, melancholy Adagio. Most importantly he listened to the orchestra carefully and communicated with the conductor with eagerness. Lars, although a German, has a very high cheek and a big nose on a Childish face. Sometimes his face looks lumpy from side. But when he looks straight, it’s hard not to notice his disarming smile. There are only two pictures of him in CD pamphlet but Sarah has four. As for cover design, it is Sarah Chang’s show. But in the performance, he shines when the piano is supposed to take the charge and contributes his warmth and depth.

There is magic intimacy between the pair. They are so well communicated that each compliments the other and neither steals the show when the other sings the melody. In the beautiful third movement, Lars plays the opening with intensity, followed by Sarah’s first theme. When Sarah Chang suddenly lowers her volume, she reduces the vibrato at the same time. The violin whispered in a fizzling voice floating in the air with gossamer texture that was flimsy but uneven. When the second theme appears, Lars Vogt gives his best accompany with lyricism and warmth (at 4 Minutes). He sings smoothly with elegance and clarity, but never overshadows the violin part. Afterwards Sarah makes even thinner tonality that can almost break in breeze . It feels like the dim reflection of moon shattering in the water. From 4:40, Lars gives a restrained crescendo that mimic the opening of the movement before Sarah repeats the first theme with implacable synchronization. What a great recapitulation at around 5 minutes! When the main theme of the first movement comes back, Sarah resumes her lush tone like a mellowing echo from the past, a little bit sweet but sorrow.

"Oh. I did spend a lot of time.” Lars Vogt answered in very fluent English when I asked him the secret of intimacy in the duo during the intermission. That seemed to remind him his rehearsal and recording; he didn’t sign the CD immediately but looked at the cover instead. When I told him that Sarah Chang was actually going to give a concert in a week, he smiled and said “Please say hello to Sarah for me”.

That made my day.

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