Monday, September 18, 2017

Multi-talented Jonathan Sussman at “The Interludes”


Jonathan and Alan Sussman play Schubert, Bach, Bruch, Dutilleux, Borne and Paganini at First Lutheran

Jonathan Sussman.
The flyer for the new seasons’s first “The Interludes” recital at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, promised “flutist, violist, pianist, and composer” Jonathan Sussman, who (the program note went on to tell us) is a double major at USC studying flute at the Thornton School of Music and biomedical engineering at the Viterbi School of Engineering. Many talents indeed! In the recital, his composing did not figure, but otherwise there was plenty to impress. 

His pianism was on display first, in company with that of his father, Alan Sussman, in Schubert’s four-hands/one-piano Marche caractéristique in C Op.121 No.1 D886b, for which there seems to be no clear evidence of date. As with episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, there’s always more to discover in Schubert’s virtually limitless output, and I had not previously come across this march. Prior scoping of YouTube performances revealed a wide range of possible tempi, from plodding to hell-for-leather. Fortunately, the Sussmans’ inclined to the latter (though their attack, vehement as well as athletic, tested First Lutheran’s piano), keeping the potential tedium of the march’s many repetitions at bay, even with a full clutch of repeats. Clearly it’s a minor item in the great Schubertian canon, but even so, the passing sideways harmonic shifts, and the more delicate beauty of its trio section, signaled the genius behind it. 

Jonathan next took up his flute, and his performance, with his father at the piano, of J.S. Bach’s Sonata in E minor for flute and continuo BWV 1034 gained confidence as it proceeded. After accounts of the first, Adagio ma non tanto, and second, Allegro, movements that seemed to me a little careful, the following Andante evinced some nice breath control in the movement’s long spacious phrases, while both players brought an airborne, improvisatory quality to their rapid contrapuntal interactions in the final Allegro

Now for the viola. The original version of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei Op.47 is styled, somewhat unusually, as being for ‘cello with orchestra and harp, but it also exists in various arrangements and transcriptions. One for viola and piano was made as recently as 2014 by one Orfeo Mandozzi, though the Sussmans did not clarify whether what they played was this or another. Jonathan immediately showed an ease with the instrument quite equal to that with the flute, but in the music itself I found the substitution of viola for ‘cello diminished the heft of the Adagio ma non troppo opening, though in the central Un poco piú animato it gave a delicacy to the texture, in company with the piano doing its best to impersonate the harp. 

Henri Dutilleux at approximately the time
of composition of his Flute Sonatine.
The very long-lived Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) was one of the giants of 20th century French music, and famously self-critical. One of the early works that he later repudiated was his Sonatine for flute and piano of 1943, and the Sussmans’ performance made one grateful that the composer’s dissatisfaction never became an embargo.

This was the recital’s highlight for me, a work of teeming invention across its 10-minute span. The first of the three brief movements is amiable enough – an equal partnership of the two instruments in a cool, medium-paced discourse – but the following Andante, at first juxtaposing piano broodings with arabesques on the flute, pulls the two instruments together with growing tension until it precipitates the wild Anime finale, projected with great élan by Jonathan and his father. Wonderful stuff!

After this, two less substantial items. First came one of the many fantasias/potpourris/selections derived by other composers from the fertile soil Bizet laid down in his Carmen. This was the Fantaisie Brillante by François Borne, who puts the flute through its paces, faithfully underpinned by the piano, in virtuosic reworkings of some of the opera’s most familiar numbers. Finally – as an unprogrammed encore – Jonathan Sussman took the stage alone in a solo flute rendering of Paganini’s Caprice No.24 from his set of 24 – the familiar one that has probably been the subject of even more variations and reimaginings than the tunes from Carmen. I don’t know whether this was a literal transcription of the complete original violin Caprice, but it certainly sounded as finger-tangling, and was enthusiastically applauded by the Interludes audience.


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, September 16, 2017.
Photos: Jonathan Sussmann: courtesy UCLA; Henri Dutilleux: courtesy Radio France.

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