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While March Madness basketball continued to dominate the airwaves, local music lovers made their way through pouring rain and treacherous evening traffic to hear a splendid recital at Ruggero Piano. Both from Duke University, the featured artists were R. Larry Todd, piano, and Katharina Uhde, violin. The duo performed works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Clara Schumann, Joseph Joachim, and César Franck.
Professor Larry Todd is a Mendelssohn scholar, pianist, and teacher. His passion for piano performance was only briefly upstaged by his animated spoken introduction to the Beethoven Sonata in G, Op. 30, No. 3 (1802). Vienna was the nerve center of 19th-century music-making. Everyone knew (or wanted to know) everyone; there were rivalries, "schmoozing," and collaborations. Beethoven was the center of a very large circle.
Beethoven (1770-1827) and Franck (1882-22) were separated by generation and location. But like many others, Franck was undoubtedly influenced by the German master. No composer writes in a vacuum. Beethoven's late string quartets, after all, set the stage for the development of chromaticism and dissonance. But Franck made his own contribution to the "French Musical Renaissance." And the Violin Sonata in A Major (1886) is one of Franck's most important compositions.
Dr. Katharina Uhde was born in Germany. She holds a DMA in violin from University of Michigan and a Teaching Diploma and Artists Diploma from University of Music, Karlsruhe in Germany. She has performed the Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Violin in the U.S. and abroad and the Triple Concerto on tour in Europe. In addition to her solo work, Uhde performs with the Viktor Ullmann Quartet, an award-winning ensemble she founded in 1998. She is currently a graduate student in musicology at Duke University.
Todd and Uhde began the recital with a spirited reading of Beethoven's Sonata. Dedicated to the Russian Czar, Alexander I, the piece is composed in three movements. I love all three, but the second movement deserves special attention. A descriptive title pretty much says it all: Tempo di Minuetto ma molto moderato e grazioso. Read carefully and play very gracefully (or else)! The singing melodies and tenderness make the music memorable while reflecting the quiet vulnerability of Beethoven's softer side. Uhde captured this. With exquisite control of the bow and variety of vibrato, she shaded every note with beautiful color.
Sufficiently warmed up, the duo performed the weighty Franck Sonata. This composition is technically and musically demanding for both violinist and pianist. Todd and Uhde demonstrated not just skill and endurance, however. Every twist and turn requires almost mind-reading communication. Uhde rarely looked at the music – there is little time. Like the helmsman on a ship, she seemed totally absorbed yet undaunted as she navigated through a tumultuous sea. It's a big piece and they played it well.
Beside the gorgeous melodic lines, the Franck Sonata is built with a multitude of interesting layers, the melodic line hidden within inner voices of the piano part, and places where the violin holds it all together. Anyone who knows the piece will hold back the impulse to sing along. Uhde made the most of the dramatic changes in dynamic level and shifting expressively. With the lid completely up, Todd played with bold assurance when called for but often held back, with a sensitive touch. Richard Ruggero was extremely happy with the sound Todd coaxed from the beautiful Bösendorfer. The two instruments were perfectly balanced.
With every hearing, I discover something new. This time I thought about the forward looking musical elements: super-triplets in the second movement, for example, and loping rhythm that resembles jazz swing over the French overture style, plus shifting accents and key signatures that signal greater sophistication. Some of these elements would shape the future of music and find their way into American jazz.
The duo also performed the first of Clara Schumann's Three Romances, Op. 22, and Joseph Joachim's Notturno in A, Op. 12, for violin and piano. Both are minor pieces, but they offer a glimpse of 19th century recital literature.
Note: This program was also presented in Durham, on March 17.