Chamber Music Review



Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello - and More - at Wake Forest University

September 20, 2009 - Winston-Salem, NC:


A smallish crowd of music-lovers braved dreary weather on Sunday afternoon to listen to a pair of emerging artists perform an eclectic program of chamber music in Brendle Hall in the Scales Fine Arts Center at Wake Forest University. Each played an unaccompanied work in the first half of the program but joined forces for the monumental Sonata for Violin and ‘Cello by Maurice Ravel which occupied most of the second half of the concert.

Adam Carter, a fine cellist, opened the concert with a bold and unaffected performance of J. S. Bach’s Suite No.1, in G major. This is probably the most frequently played of the six suites, each of which follow a similar pattern of six movements, mostly derived from dances of a preceding epoch. There is no existing manuscript signed by Bach himself; the best source is Anna Magdalena’s copy, with its many inaccuracies of slurs, leading to a wide variety of interpretations of the suites.

After the familiar Prelude, which he played in a forthright manner (unlike the occasional romanticized version that seems to inhabit TV commercials), Carter allowed himself to play the Allemande almost as an improvisation – as though he were birthing the music – and we, the audience, the first to discover it. How refreshing!

Skipping past the Courante and the stately Sarabande to the Minuets, I was struck by the similarity of the thematic material of the first Minuet to the Prelude. This is not unheard of in Bach – many a prelude reveals the theme of its fugue. The second Minuet (which eventually became a Trio) was played by Carter with an intriguing and charming freedom. After the repeat of the first Minuet, Carter launched directly into the final Gigue, which tightened the Suite and aroused the audience.

The Sonata for Solo Violin in A minor by Eugène Ysaÿe is the second of a group of six such works. One of a long line of extraordinary Belgian violinists which included de Bériot, Vieuxtemps, Marsick, Ysaÿe himself, and perhaps ending with Arthur Grumiaux, and which included at one time the Polish virtuoso Henri Wieniawski, Eugene Ysaÿe was a prolific composer and decent conductor as well as a sought-after violin virtuoso. This sonata is dedicated to French virtuoso Jacques Thibaud, and starts with a parody of J.S. Bach’s second Partita in E Major.

The compositions of Ysaÿe are highly personal and original. Just the titles of the four movements can lead one to daydream: "Obsession," "Malinconia" (Italian for "Melancholy" or "Gloom"), "Danse des Ombres" (French for "Dance of the Shades"), and "Les Furies," the last two movements played without a pause. The entire work could have been sub-titled “Fantasy on Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath), the famous chant from the mass for the dead and an allusion to the Judgment Day.

Violinist Jeanette Jang plays with a natural intensity and expressivity which make it a pleasure to listen to her. Although playing from her music, she inhabited the sonata completely. And her technical control was great; Ysaÿe the virtuoso composed a virtuosic piece, replete with almost every effect the violin can play – pizzicato, double and triple stops, ponticello (playing directly over the violin bridge, creating an eerie whistling tone) – as well as bi-tonality (playing in two keys at once).

After intermission, Jang and Carter joined forces in the highlight of the afternoon, the Sonata for Violin and Cello by Maurice Ravel. Although in later years champions of Ravel and Debussy bickered at each other in partisan fashion, Debussy and Ravel held each other in high esteem. The first movement of the Ravel duo sonata (originally entitled “Duo”) was published as part of an homage commemorating Debussy’s death.

In part, this may explain the sparseness of the writing, which clearly emphasizes melody, either accompanied or in counterpoint, where the melodic lines are more independent of each other. “The music is stripped to the bone,” Ravel wrote. “Harmonic charm is renounced, and there is an increasing return of emphasis on melody.” This austerity made the Sonata unpopular in its day, possibly because Ravel’s contemporaries had already been treated to the brilliance of "Rhapsodie espagnole," the delicacy of Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose), and the sumptuousness of Daphnis et Chloé. But the Sonata is now considered a landmark in 20th century chamber music.

Two principal themes weave and constantly undergo transformations throughout most of the four movements, which are simply titled, Allegro, Très vif (very lively), Lent (slow) and Vif (lively). In the first movement, an ambiguity of key – major or minor? – gives a blues-like color to the opening, and long complex syncopated (off-beat) passages contrast with robustly rhythmic passages to create an effective climax, closing with an satisfyingly pure major chord.

Ravel, the master of orchestral color, explored and exploited all the possible string sounds in the second movement – pizzicato and harmonics (at the beginning) and ponticello at the end. The more lyrical third movement opened with a long cello solo, warmly played by Carter, and equally warmly responded to by Jang, beginning a very intense duet. After a stunning high point, the players returned in the more tender tone created by added mutes. The final movement catches us off balance with its playful mix of 4/4 and 3/4 and soon evokes the light-heartedness of Ma mère l’oye.

To close the concert, Jang and Carter treated us to the Passacaglia on a Theme by Händel by Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935), a Norwegian violinist, composer and conductor. The predominant characteristics of a passacaglia are its repeated use of the same theme (often eight-noted – like the “Canon” of Pachelbel) and its slow, strolling tempo. In this piece, each variation shows off a musical or technical aspect of the duo. It was a welcome closing after the perplexing ambiguity of the Ravel.

P.S. The astute reader will notice the reoccurrence of groups of sixes: six solo cello suites by Bach, six sonatas for solo violin by Ysaÿe, and six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, again by Bach. But there are more: six Brandenburg Concerti by Bach, six Pièces en Concert by Jean-Philippe Rameau, and a set of six string quartets Mozart composed and dedicated to Franz-Josef Haydn. Surely there are still more – we invite your additions: pperret@triad.rr.com.