Ani Kavafian, Violin and Mihae Lee, Piano Play Sonatas By Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms

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Ani Kavafian and Mihae Lee
Ani Kavafian and Mihae Lee

Chapin Hall, Williams College, Friday, September 26 2008, 8 pm

Mozart, Sonata for Violin and Piano in B flat Major, K. 378
Brahms, Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Major, opus 78, “Regen”
Beethoven, Sonata No. 9 for Violin and Piano in A Major, opus 47, “Kreutzer”

Ani Kavafian – violin
Mihae Lee – piano

Williams College was fortunate to have hosted two of the great figures in American chamber music Friday evening in a program of core masterpieces of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both Ani Kavafian and Mihae Lee, who play often together as a duo and as the Triton Trio, which includes Ms. Lee’s husband William Purvis, the great horn player, as well as in larger groups, have distinguished reputations for their work with new music. With their roots in the present day, they reach into the past with all the more conviction. Their performances of the classics are consistently deeply studied and thought through, original, and impeccably played. It is a joy to listen to the mere sound Ani Kavafian produces from the 1736 Muir McKenzie Stradivarius, always centered right on pitch and surrounded by a rich bloom which fans out into an amazing variety of color and nuance; and the intelligence with which she applies her virtuosity is of the highest order. In the three works on this evening’s program piano and violin are virtually equally matched, giving Ms. Lee full opportunity to use her musicality, insight, and strength to the fullest.

Kavafian and Lee’s Mozart B Flat Major, K. 378, was lyrical and elegant, but muscular in rhythm. Both musicians worked closely together, entirely in accord, in supporting the solidity and passion of the work. They focussed on small, strongly shaped and accented phrases, but were never heavy or over-emphatic. Their clean rests added to the energy of their give-and-take as well as to that of the music itself. Ms. Kavafian’s dark lower registers and her soaring lines above, often enhanced with soft attacks and cadences, which gave their playing just a hint of a very appealing old-fashioned quality, were characteristic of their thoroughly grounded approach.

Lee supported this by exploiting the rich lower notes of the problematic Williams Bösendorfer. Since she was keeping her sound in check, the piano sounded uncharacteristically clear and well balanced, and in the Mozart and the Brahms she succeeded in making the instrument sound as good as I’ve ever heard it. Although the veiled, reverberant sound of Chapin Hall was not kind to her magnificent instrument, Kavafian also managed to make the best of the first two works. They had the advantage of having lyrical qualities which were well served by an intimate, quietish performance. However even in these the acoustics detracted from the McKenzie’s higher registers, making some of Kavafian’s notes above the G clef sound somewhat dispersed, even thin and papery. I’ve remarked before that, especially since the sound reflectors were brought into service on the stage, soloists in Chapin sound as if they were playing in another room. This was only partially true for Ms. Kavafian, but at times it sounded as if a student were quietly following her playing in a distant space behind the stage. Nonetheless its qualities as a truly great Mozart performance was still amply clear. Kavafian and Lee’s Mozart can take an honored place in the tradition of Szigeti, Grumiaux, and Szeryng. But their original approach sets them apart. In their clarifying and energetic use of short phrases and pointed accents they have benefitted not only from their immersion in contemporary music (as Szigeti did from his association with Bartók) but their study of historical performance practices.

Brahms Opus 78 was another magnificent performance which was only partially marred by the Chapin acoustics. In fact, I have never heard this wonderful piece so well understood. The sonata has a dreamy, yearning quality to it, but also a solid structure. Some performances concentrate on its poetic atmosphere and long line—very beautifully, of course, but at the expense of its foundation and frame. This problem was obviously not lost on Kavafian and Lee, who broke up Brahms’ melodic line in the first subject, using the short phrases and vigorous accentuation and shaping which had been so effective in the Mozart. Lee played the dark chords which accompany this melody assertively, with weight, and with  a steady beat. This grounded the floating melody most satisfyingly and brought the entire work into balance. In years of listening to and loving Opus 78, this really seemed to be what I’d been waiting for. Their playing of the second movement was broad and grave. Ms. Kavafian’s vigorous accentuation and molding of the melodies, above all the two-note phrase in the first section, gave the music an unusual energy which grew to some intensity as the coda released it. The continuously flowing motif of the last movement, which evokes the falling of rain, traditionally sets the tone for the entire work and is often played with a Debussy-like delicacy. Kavafian and Lee gave it a heartier reading, using, as before, accentuation shaping of the line to give the music more substance, while never seeming heavy or labored. I found their original approach thoroughly convincing —a revelation, really.

Sadly, in Beethoven’s “Kreutzer,” which filled the second half of the program, their valiant effort began to break down. Kavafian and Lee customarily play with extraordinarily fine attention to subtle balances between their parts. In the first half of the program, which the acoustics allowed only an approximation of these balances to come through, their general intent was ay least apparent, and my memory could fill in what I could not immediately hear. In the Kreutzer, especially in the first movement, it seemed that they could not quite find each other’s dynamics, and the music failed to cohere in the cogent way Beethoven intended. The solemn first bars of the first movement, which they played with impressive weight and solemnity, were promising, but the sustained mood didn’t last long. The contrasting gestures of the ensuing fast exposition seemed at odds with one another. Besides this, the Sonata contains music which is both fast and loud, and it can be played no other way. Even Mihae Lee’s careful control of dynamics and tone, the Bösendorfer reverted to its old raucous self. Accompanying figures and scales sounded both harsh and muddled. No wonder Ms. Kavafian could not mesh with it, either tonally or in expression. The playing had power and force, but that was pretty much all that came through. The slow movement fared better, because of the quieter nature of the music, and I felt the musicians were able to find their footing again, and their interpretation of the variations, full of dramatic contrasts and exquisite articulation, was fascinating, although they were marred by the veil imposed over them and the distortion of her tone in higher passages. The final movement had all the energy and large gesture we expect, but, as in the first movement, its refinements were lost, like a poorly conserved masterpiece, its glazes rubbed away, under a discolored varnish. Under different circumstances this could have been a truly great “Kreutzer” and an unforgettable evening.

Chapin Hall is both handsome and impressive, an entirely suitable edifice for the purpose it was built, academic ceremonies. The Bösendorfer is too powerful an instrument for its narrow space, and it possibly suffers in the Williamstown climate, for which it was most definitely not built. Williams should really use the fine auditorium at the Clark, which has an excellent Steinway, until they finally can focus their attention on building an adequate venue for chamber music and larger ensembles. (Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall is in some ways better and in some ways worse. The ’62 Center is surpisingly good for music, not that many people get a chance to hear that, given the almost constant use of amplification in the hall. I heard a piano recital there once and the sound was excellent, especially from the balcony.) Acoustics are not incidental to musical performance. Whatever instruments are brought into a hall resonate with it as if they were one, and that is a fundamental reality for all musicians. Hall acoustics are as essential the musician as the paper for a draftsman or the stone for a sculptor, and it is wonderful to reflect on how the architect, the instrument-maker, the composer, and the player come together to realize a musical performance.

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