One day in 1888, in Leipzig, the German city closely associated with J.S. Bach, Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky met for dinner at the home of noted violinist Adolph Brodsky. Two composers with more divergent approaches to music would be hard to find.
Tchaikovsky strove for emotional immediacy and liked to write programmatically, associating specific pieces with specific images or scenes – it’s no accident his best-known music to this day comes from the ballet. He loved to find catchy melodies and stick with them. Brahms’s genius was to shape abstract, endlessly inventive formalism into romantic music of unearthly beauty. Tchaikovsky famously hated Brahms’s music. Their contemporary tastemakers, and history, have of course reckoned the German composer very differently.
Edvard Grieg and his wife were at that dinner too. Brodsky’s wife recorded that Greig sat himself between the antagonists to rescue the evening from disaster. Prof. Nicholas Chong described this whole fascinating scene at the latest ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts concert event, where violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and his wife, pianist Wu Qian, gave sumptuous performances of music by all three 19th-century greats at Columbia University’s Italian Academy on Wednesday night.
They began with Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 2. Sitkovetsky’s violin sounded a little thin at first, maybe hurting in the extreme cold weather we’d been having. It warmed up as the first movement progressed. Qian’s light touch on the keyboard allowed the music’s various colors and densities to reveal themselves naturally. As Sitkovetsky’s tone deepened, the duo entered fully into the romantic spirit of the piece.
The term “violin sonata” suggests music for featured violin with piano accompaniment, but that wasn’t how Brahms did business. This sonata is much more a duet of equals. In the second movement the pair nicely contrasted the quiet and the vivacious sections. The violinist carried the intense romance of the slow-section arpeggios with a grounded strength and a sweet upper-register tone. The finale had a smooth rhythmic flow and superb balance, expressing a coherent and compelling narrative, fulfilling the composer’s philosophy that emotionally arresting music needs no explicit story.
Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir d’un lieu cher” followed. Though not denoted a sonata, its three movement add up to a traditionally sonata-like work, with the pianist in more of an accompanist role. But, characteristically for the composer, it’s inspired by a specific place, his patron’s Ukraine estate. I had never heard it before.
The first movement, denoted “Méditation,” gives the violin a high-register and interval workout that Sitkovetsky made look easy, with his sensitive feel for the melodies. The duo sailed through the piece with delicacy and perfect coordination, as if breathing together. They applied the same grace to the flashing, racing figures of the “Scherzo” movement, negotiating the showy rhythms and fast fingerwork with impressive smoothness. Sitkovetsky then applied a dextrous touch to the cinematic “Mélodie” with its romantic tunes. Both violinist and pianist gave the piece a yearning, dolce quality.
Grieg, too, is today best known to the general public for programmatic music, especially his Peer Gynt suites. His third Violin Sonata isn’t built on explicit references, though there are obvious borrowings from the Norwegian folk music he loved so much. Gossamer figures echoed like rain from violin to piano and back in the first movement. Sitkovetsky displayed nimble and precise bowing, Qian a light liquid touch. Her descending chromatics set up a strong climax. Ultimately they made me like this movement more than I have in the past.
Qian drew exquisite colors from the piano in the second movement’s lullaby-like introduction. Simple folk melodies and dance rhythms dominate this piece, and the musicians developed them with a subtle dynamic build. But I like the third movement best. The pair related its ostinatos, unexpected key changes, galloping folk rhythms, exposed pizzicatos, and wind-chime piano figures with spirit and skill. They then encored with a somber and sweet minuet by Schnittke, charmingly played.
I can’t speak highly enough of these lecture-illuminated concerts from the ASPECT Foundation. Visit the website for a schedule of upcoming events.