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Polonsky-Wiley Love-Fest at Vassar

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Feb 11th, 2017

Anna Polonsky and Peter Wiley at Skinner Hall

Two famed graduates of the Curtis Institute came together for a recital at Vassar’s Skinner Hall last Friday night. Well-attended, despite the promise of snow, pianist and cellist offered a romantic program suitable for Valentine’s Day.

They opened with Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, op. 70. This domestic dialogue of piano and cello was redolent with romantic sentiment. Full of intimate intensity, it records the tender early romance of the lovers who speak to each other with doting frankness and curiosity. As a diary of early romance, this charming tour of easeful compatibility remains hard to surpass. Unlike the intricate complexity of Schumann’s later work, this simple composition exudes the atmosphere of a tutor in love with a prodigy pupil. Robert first met Clara Wieck when she was only 8 and he 18. Her father threatened to kill them both before their love was consummated as they exchanged secret notes. While the years of tormented courtship were later to haunt Robert, this piece opens a window into the delight of lovers fulfilling a dream that each longed for, yet each thought their love would be thwarted. The slow pace of the Adagio that conjured respect and fascination gives way to the Allegro of excitement, as if the forbidden lovers have so much to say that there is not time enough to speak the unsayable as they saunter about a candle-lit  library.

Johannes Brahms’ Sonata in F major, op. 99, likewise offers a dialog between lovers. At its premiere in 1866, Brahms himself played the piano. Peter Wiley’s powerful, resonant cello was the male voice, while Anna Polonsky’s fey piano portrayed a self-confident woman being courted. In the Allegro vivace the cello appears to ask many questions, evoking cheerful and apt echoes from the piano. The piano takes more of a lead in the Adagio affettuoso where the woman asks questions and the cello replies—it’s clear the piano is hooked on the cello and there’s a sexual frisson to the contrast in deep bass and high treble runs of expressive affection. In the Allegro passionato both instruments are so enthusiastically on the same page, it is as if they were embracing; Wiley’s cello was so excited that his pizzicato here was so fulsome that I shuddered in awe. I had never heard such expressive pizzicato performed to such exquisite perfection. Any slight disagreements on how particular echoing tunes were to be ornamented dissolved in the Allegro molto. Accomplished was that longed-for romance that might appear in a novel or film, yet music is so much closer to life than fiction that the abstract language of music appeared to incarnate ultimate real romance.

After the briefest of Intermissions, they performed a duo arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Pastorale (originally for organ) which conjured the picture of lovers strolling in rural landscape. We were out of the drawing room with passing clouds and tangible greenery.   

Frederic Chopin’s Sonata in G minor, op. 65, offered both the fever and tempest of love. Yes, the fever was certainly romantic, but there was more realism in the testing tempest of love than words might express. This was mature love proven through trials and tribulations beyond mere infatuation of youth. This was the love we aspire to live with, but to live it with heightened lyricism.

I have some discs of Peter Wiley playing with The Beaux Arts Trio and the Guarneri Quartet. I have enjoyed them greatly, yet hearing Wiley’s cello on stage, I was overjoyed. With a single stroke of his bow it seemed like he could cleave open my chest. Anna Polonsky’s fingering had a coyly ethereal quality that was fetchingly seductive. This concert opened my ears and heart to better appreciate the possibilities of Valentine’s Day.