Works for Two Violins from Two Masters of Their Instruments

United StatesUnited States Leclair, Bartók, Bériot, Prokofiev: Pamela Frank, Christian Tetzlaff (violins), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 18.4.2017. (BJ)

Leclair – Sonata in E minor, Op.3 No.5; Sonata in D major, Op.3 No.6

Bartók – Duos for Two Violins (selection)

Bériot – Duo Concertant in D major, Op.57 No.3; Duo Concertant in G minor, Op.57 No.1

Prokofiev – Sonata in C major, Op. 56

“You’ll never believe,” said the Dutch cabaretier Wim Kan in a comedy routine he recorded around 1960, “what my favorite instrument is: violin! Strange, no? But violin is so expressive. And do you know what’s even more expressive? – two violins!”

With this unusual duo recital, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society afforded us delightful evidence for that claim. There were no indubitably great works to be heard. But the advocacy of two indubitably great violinists made a program of relatively unassuming pieces by Leclair and de Bériot, along with works by Bartók and Prokofiev, sound very much like great music.

Both performers have undergone vicissitudes of various kinds over the years. Pamela Frank has had intermittent physical problems, which certainly seem now to have left her in radiant health and with her artistry undimmed. Christian Tetzlaff, for his part, has in the last decade or so shed the eminently respectable persona of his earlier years (short hair, unobtrusive glasses, restrained platform manner) to blossom now with a pony-tail and a readiness to sway uninhibitedly in whatever direction the music takes him in – but similarly with no diminution of the artistic insight and technical mastery that have made him one of the outstanding violinists of our time.

Burnished by the live acoustics of the Perelman Theater, the sound of each instrument seemed to draw opulence and bloom from the presence of the other. Nor was there any sense of textural sameness, but rather a realization that there are all kinds of ways these two unsupported instruments can relate to each other, by turns in rich harmony and sparkling contrapuntal interplay, with zestful rhythm and pointed articulation varying the mix. Considering, moreover, that Frank and Tetzlaff are now playing together for the first time since their days at the Marlboro Festival in the 1980s, the tautness of their ensemble was as notable as their ability to meld contrasting physical and expressive styles in one graceful and cohesive unity.

Nobody would be likely to place the Frenchman Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) among the supreme masters of music for the violin, and the Belgian Charles-Auguste de Bériot (1802-1870) is even less likely to be confused, on stylistic or indeed on any grounds, with his Italian near-namesake of a century or so later. A pair of works by each of them, however, sufficed to demonstrate an agreeable blend of technical prowess with warmth and variety of expression. And combining them in one program with a generous selection of Bartók’s 44 Duos and with Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins made for an evening – topped off with Prokofiev’s charming little pizzicato Duo by way of encore – that was as pleasurable as it was unpredictable.

Bernard Jacobson

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