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At a time when marquee classical artists of international stature are sidelined, unable to draw the fees and crowds they normally command, it's been rather gratifying to watch the professionals in our own communities, while similarly sidelined, step forward and show their mettle in more intimate virtual settings. With the Durham-based Mallarmé Chamber Players, founded in 1984 but newly taking to streaming their concerts, it's nothing new for musicians from local orchestras to stand forth and shine, but with our big orchestras and concert halls silenced, it may be new for some of our music lovers to take notice. Though Mallarmé may be new to the virtual concert game, their choice of Bösendorfer Hall at Ruggero Piano in Raleigh shows they're savvy, for the acoustics proved to be of studio quality in the latest episode of their Ode to Joy series. An all-Beethoven concert is an inevitable part of such a series, particularly when we continue to celebrate Maestro Ludwig's 250th birthday, pandemic or no.
Wearing matching black masks, aglitter with reflective beads, violinist Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky and pianist Danielle DeSwert Hahn performed a nice variety of seldom-heard pieces representing Beethoven's early, middle, and late periods. Wolborsky is principal second violin of the North Carolina Symphony, and Hahn, a former principal pianist of the Baltimore Opera Company, currently heads the music programs at the National Gallery of Art in DC. Both players are prominent in the Living Art Collective Ensemble (LACE), which Wolborsky co-founded, so I expected to find an excellent rapport between the two.
The concert began with the Rondo for Violin and Piano in G, likely written during one of Beethoven's early sojourns in Vienna around 1794. Hahn led into the piece at a brisk and lively pace, reveling in the ebullience of the piece and clearly at ease at the Bösendorfer as she sketched the recurring theme. That disadvantaged Wolborsky as the violinist floated in above Hahn's playing, for she was not as well-miked as the pianist (if miked at all), and she tended to mistake simple passages for insignificant ones, disinclined to seize the lead or to sustain it. I was fond of the pace that Hahn had chosen, more akin to the leisurely ramble of Wilhelm Kempff with Yehudi Menuhin than the feverish gallop of James Ehnes with Andrew Armstrong, and I liked how she guided us back and forth from the playful main theme to the alternate themes, engaging detours into graver depths or fantasy mists.
What lay before us was a fascinating pairing of final Beethoven statements, beginning with his final composition for solo piano and concluding the evening with his last violin sonata. The six Bagatelles for Piano were published in 1824 and challenge the musician to navigate a kaleidoscope of different colors and moods, with no lack of hairpin turns along the way. Of the many versions you can sample on Spotify, I prefer the Paul Lewis and Alfred Brendel versions to those by Sviatoslav Richter and Piotr Anderszewski. Glenn Gould is also a contender, but only if we ignore his perversely slow account of the middle Presto. Hahn seemed less confident in this suite, either because the spotlight fell solely on her or because of the treacherous terrain. The opening Andante con moto in G could have used sharper dynamic contrasts, yet the Allegro, still in G, was markedly improved in its sculpting and built to high drama. Hahn captured the lyricism at the start of the Andante in E-flat and the poignancy of its ending. She did not deny the Presto in B of its speed, and when the music possessed her, she found the flow. Though the triple meter rhythm of the Quasi allegretto in G slipped from her grasp, Hahn excitingly captured the flow and the argument of the concluding Presto in E-flat, delivering her most sensitive playing in the extended Andante amabile a con moto section that dominates the piece.
Written in 1812, at the very end of Beethoven's middle period, the Sonata in G for Piano and Violin doesn't get nearly as much attention, in concert halls or recording studios, as the Violin Sonata No. 9 that preceded it, the famed "Kreutzer Sonata" celebrated by Janacek and immortalized by Tolstoy. My favorite recordings of Violin Sonata No.10 differ in their balance, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Itzhak Perlman achieving exquisite equilibrium while Lev Oborin allows the scales to tip slightly toward violinist David Oistrakh. So, it was a bit startling at first to hear Wolborsky yielding dominance to Hahn in the opening two movements of the piece. The charm of the two musicians playing in unison through the most exquisite passages of the opening Allegro moderato disappeared with hardly a trace, and in the ensuing Adagio espressivo, Hahn's echoes upstaged Wolborsky's statements with their soulfulness.
Fortunately, Wolborsky rose to the occasion for the final two movements of the sonata, some of the most rousing music of the evening. There was plenty of spirit from the violinist pouncing on the penultimate Scherzo, which seemed to buoy Hahn to greater flights of bravura, and – with a page-turner appearing out of nowhere to help Hahn keep up the pace – the pianist had a wonderful lilt in introducing the melodies of the concluding Poco allegretto, while Wolborsky seemed equally transported. The headlong transition to allegro was the most thrilling moment of the concert, inevitably followed by a diversionary Beethoven cool-down. Hahn handled her cadenzas beautifully, and Wolborsky produced her finest sounds in her soulful responses. We seemed headed to the heated finishing strokes when Beethoven applied the brakes at what seemed to be the last note. Jollity triumphed at the end as both Hahn and Wolborsky relished regrouping and romping to the finish line.