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Three Different Delicious Duos at Vassar

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Oct 27th, 2017

Danielle Farina and Thomas Sauer at Skinner Hall

Friday evening violist Danielle Farina and pianist Thomas Sauer, both of Vassar College, offered a recital at Skinner Hall of Music, illustrating three different ways of composing and performing duos. They began with Kenji Bunch, Suite for Viola and Piano. This was a showcase for the viola. The piano was confined to moody background support with occasional ornamentation while the viola led and showed off various tonal strengths. The opening Rhapsody was alluring, yet it was the neo-Romantic Lament (third movement) that I thought to be retro-seductive (and I would not mind hearing it again). The concluding Allegro (fifth movement) was also pleasant. Sauer joked that Bunch belonged to the “easy-music listening wing” of twentieth century music. The Suite was a pleasant ice-breaker that let one know that here was a superior violist. Ms. Farina was once a member of the Lark Quartet, but left to pursue a successful solo career.

They next played Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979) by Hans Werner Henze. I was not acquainted with Henze. The only Henze piece I had ever heard was a short one minute impromptu tribute Henze wrote for Peter Serkin and played by Peter on his 1996 album in real time. Henze, whose work is only known in Italy and Germany, is one of the most prolific and accomplished composers of the twentieth century. This sonata offered a conversation between viola and piano. Nearly midway through the piano had to grow silent for a gorgeous viola solo. What was exciting about the piece was a playful balance between lyric harmony and chaotic dissonance: two worlds clashing, co-existing, and achieving wondrous integration. There were dense elliptical passages and dissonant questing tangents yet they were artfully compatible, and I can’t explain why. The viola got the better of the conversation but it was a conversation that leapt. Why is not Henze more often played?  

Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, no. 4 by Paul Hindemith concluded the concert. This was not a showpiece of either instrument: it was a showpiece for both instruments in tandem. Both instruments performed an exciting dance together in three movements, sometimes in a call and response modality that becomes transfigured into fugue. One never knew which instrument would be leading from second to second. At the piano Sauer could finally let go with flair. (In the video below he plays a Chopin Baccarole.) This 1919 Sonata is thoroughly rooted in the previous century, although a diminished triad is employed. Mutual acceleration provides hypnotic intoxication.

While the bracketing of earlier and later compositions offers accomplished illustrations to presenting viola and piano duets, it was clear that Henze was the nougat in the chocolate piece presented to the audience. This technique of the inner core being the sweetest achievement remains a seductive Renaissance concept and practice. Besides being incredibly accomplished performers, Farina and Sauer are effortless historians of musicality.