Alice Tully Hall under the direction of Wu Han opened up its new Chamber Music Society season with a program entitle “Russian Inspiration,” that is, a program of Italian, German, Hungarian, and Irish music that nudged Russian composers to develop their own music as a wing of Western music. Wu Han with characteristic passion, wit, and learning introduced and sketched the concept of this parlor room structure, having chosen some works that were influential on the development of Russian Music.
Ida Kavafian and Benjamin Beilman opened with a Duo in G major for Two Violins, W. 4.9 (1790) by Giovanni Battista Viotti. This charming vignette told the musical story of a young man and young girl meeting for the first time. At first they engage in conversation with misunderstandings and some confusion, yet they conclude in agreement that they should talk one more. In the second movement each violin poses questions to the other, presumably questions like background, relatives, friends, and tastes. In the final Allegretto the violins dance with each other and finish with the hint that romance will lead to marriage. Comic absurdity was enhanced by the situation of the old violin pro Kavafian being pitted agaisnt the young protege Beilman, who was about Kavafian’s age when she first played on this same stage.
Gloria Chien and Michael Brown appeared to play Mozart’s Andante and Five Variations in G major for Piano, Four Hands, K. 501 (1786). Haydn and Mozart had written delightful four-hand piano pieces that became popular party pieces. Played with zest and spirit, Chien and Brown conjured Mozart’s splash of fun across the keyboard. In the late nineteenth century a significant amount of popular parlor room music in this four-hand vein developed in ever more competitive artistic spirit. Glinka was the first Russian to adopt this practice and was followed by numerous composers in this genre, most notably Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Nothing better than four hands to set a parlor room blazing with convivial ambiance.
Mikhail Glinka’s Variations on a theme of Mozart for Piano (1827) illustrated the influence of Mozart on the earliest, significant Russian composer. Brown played with admirable fluidity and finesses, which enhanced the Chopin-esque, Slavic appropriation of the great Austrian’s work.
Beilman and Chien then teamed up for real fireworks in Franz Liszt’s Grand duo concertant sur la romance “Le Marin” for Violin and Piano. Here Beilman played with great sonic authority and resonance to claim the work as own, as he exhibited the fiery showmanship of Liszt himself.
Chien then performed John Field's Nocturne No. 2 in C minor for Piano (1812). John O’Connor revived the importance of Field's work, one Dubliner paying tribute another, here at Alice Tully Hall in 1980 for his own American Premiere performance. I was there at this exciting occasion and spoke to O’Connor at some length afterwards. Telarc quickly picked him up and brought out two vinyl studio recordings of Field's Nocturnes and later in cd format (in 1990, second disc in 1992). These are excellent recordings, however, they were somewhat superseded by Míċeál O’Rourke’s 1994 double album on Chandos. O’Connor had a tendency to overemphasize the Romantic element in Field (and later in Beethoven’s Sonatas), lessening the paramount influence of Muzio Clementi on Field. While Field, imprisoned among the nobility, invented the piano Nocturne in St. Petersburg amid Venetian architecture, it was Chopin who heard Field play, then ran to Paris with his perfected version of Field’s work. Chen’s interpretation was even more Romantic than O’Connor; the deep undercurrent of melancholy had vanished amid the gently falling snowflake notes of the man in forced exile who drank himself to death.
Chien’s version was elegant, ethereal, and polished with sensitive subtlety in a very French parlor manner, but was neither Irish nor Russian. Much of Russian piano music was built on the shoulders of Field, his influence later being paramount in the mystical compositions of the Russian Thomas de Hartmann.
The grand finale of the evening was Robert Schumann’s Quartet in E-flat major for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 47 (1842, first performed by Clara at the Leipzig Conservatory on December 8, 1844). Written for Clara, this little performed masterpiece was a culminating treat that exhibited Schumann’s three imaginary personalities with a Vivace Finale whereby all three personalities glow with radiance. Paul Neubauer on viola was outstanding and young David Requiro on cello was especially marvelous in the third movement Andante cantabile. This was an excellent example of the ardent Romanticism that Tchaikovsky so admired.
Opening night offered a provocative and thoughtful program that encouraged the audience to think with broad historical perspective. We look forward to hearing more accomplished performances from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.