Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: Biss & Fried

Jonathan Biss, piano
Miriam Fried, violin
Nov. 2, University of Richmond

Family chamber ensembles are common in classical music, at home if not in public. Violin-and-piano duos of kin have had special prominence in concert history. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin performed and recorded with his pianist son, Jeremy. More recently, pianist Claude Frank played in a duo with his violinist daughter, Pamela; and the Shaham siblings, violinist Gil and pianist Orli, have performed together while pursuing solo careers.

The mother-and-son duo of violinist Miriam Fried and pianist Jonathan Biss – he, as the more stellar artist of late, taking top billing – surveyed three eras of music for their instrumental combination before a sparse but appreciative audience in the Camp Concert Hall of the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center.

Their finest collaboration came in the second half of the program, devoted to Beethoven’s Sonata in G major, Op. 96. This work, written at the same time as the epic “Archduke” Trio, is among Beethoven’s most lyrical and least portentous mature chamber works; it frequently anticipates the tuneful, gemütlich chamber music of Schubert.

Fried was especially attuned to its Schubertian qualities, her fiddle singing the sonata’s extended melodies like an accomplished Lieder vocalist. Biss also accentuated lyricism and color, and showed a deft hand in the folk-dance references that crop up repeatedly in the piece, although his tone at times overbalanced the violin’s.

That tendency was even more pronounced in Mozart’s Sonata in E flat major, K. 302. Although this is one of the earliest sonatas to give the violin real parity with the piano, the piano of Mozart’s time (known in our time as the fortepiano) produced a smaller, drier tone than the modern concert grand. Biss’ best efforts at reining in the UR Steinway’s volume to match that of Fried’s Stradivarius were not quite successful.

The two musicians’ sound and style were in near-perfect accord in Brahms’ Sonata in A major, Op. 100, and the Violin Sonata of the Czech early modernist Leoš Janáček.

Biss and Fried gave a warm, mellow account of the Brahms, but without excessively slowing tempos or wallowing in the music’s lyricism, the treatment to which this composer’s music is so often subjected.

In the Janáček, they achieved a nice balance between starkness, the customary tone of voice of this composer’s thematic pronouncements, and the late-romantic lyricism that resonates as he develops his musical material.