Rare Repertoire from a Pianist and Two Sisters on Violins

Bartók, Prokofiev, Ligeti, Gao Ping, Isang Yun, Shostakovich, Martinů: Angela Chun (violin), Jennifer Chun (violin), Frederic Chiu (piano), Tenri Cultural Institute, New York City, 1.6.2011 (BH)

Bartók: Selections from 44 Violin Duos (c. 1931)
: Selections from Visions Fugitives (1915-1917)
Ligeti: Baladǎ şi joc (Ballad and Dance) (1950)
Gao Ping: Two Soviet Love Songs for Vocalizing Pianist (2003, NY Premiere)
Isang Yun: Sonatina for Two Violins (1983)
Shostakovich: Three Duets for Two Violins and Piano (1955)
Martinů: Sonata for Two Violins and Piano (1932)

Angela and Jennifer Chun. Picture © Chang Moon Sohn


A rare Ligeti work, Baladǎ şi joc (Ballad and Dance) inspired this program by violinists Angela and Jennifer Chun, with pianist Frederic Chiu at the Tenri Cultural Center. In Chiu’s opening remarks, he mentioned wanting to explore repertoire that is not often heard, even in chamber music concerts, because of the unusual instrumentation.

Bartók wrote his 44 Violin Duos with a pedagogical bent; mined from Romanian folk tunes, they are short (only a few longer than 2 minutes) and designed for amateur players or those just beginning their instrumental studies. That said, when attention is lavished on them by talents such as the Chun’s, they assume an entirely different personality. The Chun’s have lived with the Bartók pieces for awhile – their recent Harmonia Mundi recording was a hit – and the authority and care of preparation registered easily in the clear Tenri acoustic. The musicians chose an unusual presentation: eleven of the forty-four were interspersed with eight of Prokofiev’s twenty Fugitive Visions to create a dialogue between the violinists and the piano. Mr. Chiu revealed Prokofiev’s more lyrical side, and the unusual juxtaposition made sense on its own terms. The Ligeti followed immediately – an early work, and like his Concert românesc, very much indebted to Romanian folk songs. In the Chun’s hands and after the Bartók, it almost seemed like an encore.

Although Gao Ping grew up in a Chinese household, two often-played Soviet tunes were the inspiration for Two Soviet Love Songs for Vocalizing Pianist (with a nod to Glenn Gould). Having a little fun, Gao also quotes Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, and the familiar “Tea for Two” (which Shostakovich also memorably arranged). Mr. Chiu managed the combination of playing, humming, whistling and rapping on the wood of the instrument with finesse and a bit of humor.

South Korean composer Isang Yun (1917-1995) was perhaps most famous for being imprisoned for two years after being accused of spying for North Korea. His Sonatina for Two Violins is filled with high harmonics and trills, the two instruments intertwining in rhapsody, and the Chun sisters (who worked with Yun) made the best possible case for its ornate, romantic gestures.

All three musicians came together for the two final pieces, which could not have been more different from each other. Shostakovich’s Three Duets for Two Violins and Piano are arrangements by Lev Atovmyan of fragments from the composer’s music for the films The Gadfly and The Human Comedy. (The source of the final Waltz is unknown.) The three musicians brought out the work’s sweetness – the waltz might even evoke J. Strauss – and may have surprised those who know the composer’s more sardonic side. In contrast, Martinů’s Sonatina for Two Violins and Piano is fierce and propulsive, showing the composer making sophisticated use of relatively simple materials. The harmonic pungency is matched with inventive use of rhythmic contrast. One highlight was the third movement Allegretto, done tinglingly fast – a tarantella on speed – steadily mounting in intensity. The musicians’ keen attention in this bit of magic brought an unusual evening to an impressive conclusion.

Bruce Hodges