As long as you don’t try to take the analogy too far, comparing French Impressionist painting with the music created by French composers of the same period can be rewarding.
Violinist Grace Park and pianist Gilles Vonsattel joined the Calidore String Quartet for music by Claude Debussy and Ernest Chausson in an ASPECT Chamber Music Series concert titled “French Impressions” on February 27. An illustrated talk situated the music of these two French composers in the era of Impressionism, giving us a flavor of the aesthetics of the times and reminding us of the outlook of the painters who moved in the same circles as the composers. Still, the music, especially through these fine performances, stood on its own.
Especially interesting was Chausson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, a piece – and a configuration – I’d never heard before. The string quartet acts as a kind of mini-orchestra accompanying a solo violin and piano that share featured status.
The opening movement’s bold three-note theme blossoms through a tightly constructed yet romantic-leaning development. The movement calls upon the solo violin and piano to gracefully carry billowing melodies and backgrounds, with the quartet setting a sturdy tone and intermittently accompanying. Park and Vonsattel were well up to it, while the Calidore musicians, who have performed this work numerous times recently, clearly displayed their full grasp of it as well.
In the second movement (“Sicilienne”), in true “impressionist” style, Chausson moves a lilting initial formality through rolling waves of sound into something more passionate and suggestive rather than descriptive. The musicians got to the heart of the music by playing with passion and maintaining full control of their dynamics.
It’s in the powerful third movement that the troubled composer’s depressive mode is most evident. The piano’s chromatic accompanying figures create a closed-in feeling under the violin’s sad melodies. The evening’s most moving music, it drew out the musicians’ best, eliciting remarkably enthusiastic applause.
In the finale Park assertively revealed her lyrical powers. Vonsattel’s authority and clarity impressed as well. The pianist had opened the concert with Debussy at his most mysterious and ethereal, offering a prismatically beautiful performance of the brief “L’Isle joyeuse.” Vonsattel’s finesse and dynamism there set a high bar for the evening, which continued with Debussy’s more modern-sounding Violin Sonata in G minor.
As the first movement gravitated toward a sense of sighing acceptance, Vonsattel and Park established a common language as a duo. The violinist achieved a sweet tone amid the second movement’s odd rhythms and unsettled themes.
The electric energy, mournful gestures, and almost demonic acceleration of the finale set up the less familiar Chausson very nicely. Altogether it was an enlightening and moving concert, as ASPECT shows typically are, with colorful lectures adding to our understanding and appreciation of great music from the many corners of the classical tradition. Visit the website for a schedule of upcoming events. They’re sure to be worthy additions to your cultural calendar.