Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – Debussy Sonatas Plus

Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp
Sonate en forme de préludes for Harpsichord, Oboe, and Horn
Sonata for Cello and Piano
Je sens un deuxième cœur (I Feel a Second Heart) for Piano, Viola, and Cello
Sonata for Violin and Piano
Axiom for Piano, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Trumpet

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center:

Inon Barnatan (piano)
Jeffrey Kahane (piano)
Gilbert Kalish (harpsichord and piano)
Elmar Oliveira (violin)
Paul Neubauer (viola)
Gary Hoffman (cello)
Ransom Wilson (flute)
Stephen Taylor (oboe)
David Shifrin (clarinet)
Peter Kolkay (bassoon)
William Purvis (horn)
Chris Gekker (trumpet)
Heidi Lehwalder (harp)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 17 November, 2006
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, New York City

Debussy had planned to write “Six Sonates pour divers instruments”, but died after composing only three. At pianist Emanuel Ax’s initiative, Carnegie Hall commissioned three contemporary composers to complete the set, debuting the works as part of Ax’s “Perspectives” series at Carnegie Hall three seasons ago with the participation of musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. On the present occasion, the Chamber Music Society presented all six works in a single programme that also repeated on 19 November. It was expected that the Society’s participating and guest artists would give the three Debussy sonatas, all familiar staples of the chamber music repertory, excellent and idiomatic performances, but it remained to be seen whether, with the addition of the three interesting new works, the six sonatas would form a coherent whole.

The concert opened with a sparkling reading of Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Ransom Wilson (flute), Paul Neubauer (viola) and Heidi Lehwalder (harp) brought out the sensuous character of the music. The sound of all three instruments was brilliant, with precise intonation and perfect balance.

The first of the three new works was American composer Steven Stucky’s Sonate en forme de préludes for Harpsichord, Oboe and Horn. Although this seems an unlikely trio of instruments, Debussy did plan to use this combination for one of his projected sonatas. Stucky successfully met the challenge of balancing the soft and decaying sounds of the harpsichord with the two wind instruments’ ability to play louder and to sustain notes, by using the harpsichord to provide a harmonic underpinning of Debussian arpeggios and rapid runs beneath more melodic parts for the oboe and horn. The instrumentalists – Gilbert Kalish (harpsichord), Stephen Taylor (oboe) and William Purvis (horn) – did their part admirably, with Taylor and Purvis producing beautiful sounds without unduly raising their volume. Stucky’s Sonate consists of seven preludes with descriptive titles – one of Debussy’s favourite compositional forms – each creating an atmosphere more or less appropriate to its title. At times, the melodic material was reminiscent of Debussy’s music. For example, the oboe arabesques in the second prelude, ‘La Danseuse perdue en pensées’ (The Dancer Lost in Her Thoughts), were evocative of the flute part in the Debussy sonata that opened the programme, and the concluding prelude, ‘Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), recalls the like-named final prelude of Book II of Debussy’s Préludes for piano.

Gary Hoffman (cello) and Jeffrey Kahane (piano) tackled Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano with vigour. The sonorously played ‘Prologue’ was followed by the pizzicatos and quirky rhythms of the second movement ‘Sérénade’, which in turn led directly into ‘Finale’, with the cello soon singing high above rapid piano figures and then playing a delightful, tripping theme of its own. This movement later recalled thematic material from the ‘Prologue’ and finally, after a slow cello solo, concluded with a brief coda.

The second half of the programme began with Je sens un deuxième cœur (I Feel a Second Heart) for Piano, Viola and Cello, by the Paris-based Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho. She originally intended this work to portray the four characters in her opera, “Adriana Mater” (which was premiered earlier this year in Paris), but found herself moving away from the opera as the composition progressed. Nevertheless, the varying moods of the five sections of the chamber work show a strong connection with the opera’s themes of rape, war and revenge and, in the final section, what the composer has described as “the secret relationship between a mother and an unborn child”. Such devices as harmonics, glissandos and fluttering figures in the strings create feelings of irritation, agitation, uncertainty and, finally, tenderness. The use of piano chord-clusters is a technique of which Saariaho is fond; they figured prominently in her recent piano Ballade – also commissioned and premiered by Ax almost exactly a year ago. Although this sonata-work is interesting and at times moving, it is difficult to perceive any real connection to Debussy, its ostensible raison d’être.

The last of the three Debussy sonatas – and, indeed, his last major composition – was played glowingly by Elmar Oliveira (violin) with Kahane again at the piano. This performance was true to the paradoxical qualities of Debussy’s music, which is at once muscular yet graceful, gritty yet soaring. This work, like his other sonatas, is remarkable in having so much to say – and saying it so well – in a piece of such short duration.

The concert concluded with French composer Marc-André Dalbavie’s Axiom for Piano, Clarinet, Bassoon and Trumpet. The piano clearly dominated the wind trio in both prominence and volume, opening the work with an extended series of very loud and increasingly dissonant chords and then chromatic scales and trills, barely interrupted by the muted trumpet, the fluttering clarinet, and finally all three winds in soft passages that were overwhelmed by the piano’s crashing chords. The conceit of the work’s title is that the piano’s opening statement is to be regarded as an axiom, which the other instruments discuss and explore. Although, after a time, the piano receded from the foreground and played soft arpeggiated chords whilst the other instruments took turns moving the melodic material forward, they never did rival the piano’s prominence. The wind instrumentalists – David Shifrin (clarinet), Peter Kolkay (bassoon) and Chris Gekker (trumpet) – played very well, but their collective subservience to the piano seemed more nearly analogous to the role of the orchestra in a piano concerto – providing harmonic and contrapuntal accompaniment to the solo piano and playing interludes between piano passages – than to a typical chamber music partnership. It was Kalish’s solid piano-playing that really carried the piece, which returned at the end to the ‘axiomatic’ chromatic scales and chords with which it began, culminating in one final, dissonant, crashing chord. One was left wondering, however, where the connection to Debussy might lie.

This was a lengthy and memorable concert, but only until the interval did the programme succeed in realising its organising concept. Debussy’s violin sonata seemed lost when sandwiched between two strident works with little connection to Debussy in the second half of the programme.

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