Although Juilliard's faculty members are known primarily for their superb skills as educators, many are also numbered among the world's finest musicians. On Friday evening at Morse Hall, I was lucky enough to hear a recital given by several such gifted individuals. Featured were Laurie Smukler, violin, Joel Krosnick, cello, Robert McDonald, piano, and guest artist Qing Jiang, piano. Together they performed three major works from the chamber repertoire, two of them by well known composers and a third by a composer whose work truly deserves to be heard more often.
The program opened with a pair of violin sonatas performed by Laurie Smukler with Robert McDonald providing accompaniment on piano. The first was Leoš Janáček 's Sonata for Violin and Piano (1914). Listening to it, it's hard to believe this is the work of a 60 year old man, so dynamic does it sound. Than again, Janáček was the quintessential late bloomer; his most important works were not written until the 1920's when he was already 70 years old. The sonata itself was begun in 1914 but was initially rejected by Jaroslav Kocián, the Czech violinist originally scheduled to premiere it, and was not finally completed until 1921. The intervening seven years were a critical period in Janáček's career. First came the outbreak of World War I in the course of which, the patriotic composer hoped, Russia would free the Czechs from their Austrian overlords. (According to a dissertation by Danijela Žezelj-Gualdi, "Janáček insisted on the most agitated rendering of the high piano tremolo over the final appearance of the chorale-like theme in the last movement [of the sonata], explaining that it signified 'the Russian armies entering Hungary.'") It was also during this period that Janáček received his first real artistic recognition when the (revised) opera Jenůfa premiered in Prague in 1916 and the noted critic Max Brod agreed to translate it into German.
One of the most interesting features of the Janáček sonata is its relation to Czech folk music, a source of inspiration previously tapped by Dvořák. Anticipating Bartók's ethnomusicological recordings, Janáček had in 1885 journeyed through the Czech countryside collecting his country's folk songs. These had a deep impact on his music. Again quoting Žezelj-Gualdi's dissertation:
"Janáček’s musical language reflects the constant inspiration he had from Czech folk music. He based his compositions on tonal harmony but in a less standardized way than that used by many of his contemporaries. He did not cite folk songs explicitly in the Violin Sonata, but his use of short and repetitive themes, modal harmonies, ostinato patterns, improvisational passage work, three-note motives, and modified traditional structural forms can be traced back to folk music."
The second sonata was Beethoven's Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, Op. 96 (1812). This was the tenth and last of the composer's violin sonatas and is also customarily acknowledged as the final work of his middle period. While perhaps not so well known as the Sonata No. 9, the "Kreutzer," the Op. 96 is to my ear a far more accomplished work. If Beethoven's middle period had been characterized by the Romantic hero's struggle against fearsome odds (i.e., his deafness) to achieve his destiny, by 1812 Beethoven had nothing left to prove. He had won the contest on his own terms and was now acknowledged as great a master as Haydn and Mozart before him. The composer could now experience some sense of peace within himself before moving on to the works of his late period. In the words of critic Sydney Finkelstein, "the mood [of Op. 96] is one of gentle lyricism, with but glimpses of the profound depths of experience and conquest of pain that had made possible the achievement of this serenity." This newfound tranquility can be found throughout the work but is most apparent in the slow second movement marked adagio espressivo.
While Ms. Smukler's playing on both sonatas was superb, it was the pianism of Robert McDonald that most interested me. I've noted over the years that the finest Juilliard pianists are invariably students of Mr. McDonald, and this was a rare opportunity for me to hear him take his own turn at the keyboard. Not surprisingly, his performance on both pieces was masterful.
After a brief intermission, the recital concluded with Laurie Smukler, Joel Krosnick and Qing Jiang performing Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 24 (1945). Before beginning the piece, Mr. Krosnick briefly addressed the audience regarding the composer's life and work. Although Weinberg is now considered a major Soviet composer, his life was far from easy - his parents and sister were killed in the Holocaust, his father-in-law Solomon Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin, and he himself was arrested for his alleged association with the "Doctors' plot." Even though Weinberg spent most of his career laboring in obscurity, a victime of Stalin's anti-Semitism, he was a prolific composer whose works were championed by his close friend Shostakovich who also exerted a great deal of influence on the development of his music. The present four-movement trio was a highly dramatic work. It veered without pause from the mournful Larghetto that closed the first movement to the pounding rhythms of the Tocatta that opened the second. Perhaps the finest passage was the third movement Poem in which was distilled, or so at least it seemed, all the suffering Weinberg had experienced during his lifetime. Throughout the work, great weight was given to the strings while the piano, expertly played by Qing Jiang, remained silent for comparatively long intervals. I came away from the performance knowing I had just heard a true masterpiece. It's tragic that the works of so great a composer are not more often performed.