Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: Leila Josefowicz

with John Novacek, piano
April 12, Virginia Commonwealth University

Juxtaposing works of Franz Schubert and Igor Stravinsky is pretty radical programming. Which composer, one wonders, would be more rattled or put off by the company he’s keeping? Stravinsky, I’d guess, and I don’t think I’m just being contrary.

Hearing violinist Leila Josefowicz and pianist John Novacek play Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 574 (known as the “Duo”), followed by Stravinsky’s “Duo concertant” and “Chanson russe,” followed by Schubert’s Rondo in B minor, D. 895, I was struck repeatedly by the questing, explorative character of Schubert’s writing, contrasting sharply with the sense that all issues are settled in Stravinsky’s pieces.

The “Duo concertant” (1931-32) is a highly polished exemplar of Stravinsky’s middle-period neo-classical style. Not a note or gesture is out of place or in need of amplification; proportions are as symmetrical and sensible to the ear as those of a Greek temple are to the eye. The piece is witty, akin to time spent with a clever conversationalist who needs neither an interlocutor nor a straight man, just a willing listener.

The “Chanson russe,” originally an aria from the opera “Marva” (1922), subsequently arranged for violin and piano by Stravinsky and Samuel Dushkin, conveys a different, earthier and more sly kind of wit, at least to ears that have had some exposure to klezmer and other Jewish/Slavic/gypsy dance music of Eastern Europe.

The Schubert sonata and rondo, by contrast, are about the lyrical and emotional stretching of classical form, an often garrulous and sometimes unruly process that resulted in hits and misses throughout the composer’s instrumental canon. The sonata, written in 1817 when Schubert turned 20, hits in details and misses in totality; the rondo, written in 1826 when he was 29, is better organized, structurally and expressively, but like many of his later works may be longer than its contents warrant. (The “heavenly” aspect of Schubert’s “heavenly length” is definitely in the ear of the beholder.)

Josefowicz did not play up the contrast between these two composers as much as she might have, largely because her sound did not vary greatly from one to the other. The lean, focused tone she produces – with and without muting the strings – is ideal for Stravinsky, and her rather chaste brand of lyricism suited the “Chanson russe” especially well. In Schubert, however, such fiddle tone sounded rather undernourished, at least in combination with a modern piano. (Has she ever done these pieces with a fortepiano?)

“Tre pezzi” (“Three Piece”), a 1979 opus by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág, came across as a detour of dubious relevance. Josefowicz and Novacek exphasized these short pieces’ rarified fiddle and keyboard effects, which recall those of Anton Webern but lack the implied line without which such music sounds like a succession of unrelated gestures.

Novacek’s performances amounted to a clinic in the art of accompaniment. His presence was in ideally proportional in all but the Schubert “Duo” and his style was unerring throughout the program. He even managed to coax some expressiveness out of the sometimes skeletal piano lines Stravinsky wrote for the “Chanson russe” and “Cantilene” of the “Duo concertant.”

For an encore, the violinist and pianist played Charles Chaplin’s “Smile,” a haunting musical postscript both in the context of the program and in its rather austere arrangement.