Saturday, October 6, 2018

A Bouquet of Forget Me Nots on First Friday


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Ken Aiso and Valeria Morgovskaya.
What makes a melody truly memorable? This thought came to mind during most of the items in this recital by the Japanese violinist/ violist Ken Aiso and Ukrainian pianist Valeria Morgovskaya, the second in  Classical Crossroads Inc.’s Friday lunchtime series. Google the question and you’ll get more answers than you could ever be bothered to read through: one that I quite liked involved achieving, in the melody’s progress, a balance between repetition and non-repetition, and between predictable and unpredictable elements.

For me this certainly fits the pairs of falling 2nds and 5ths followed by upward scales, hesitant and imploring, that herald “The Swan” from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, played here in an arrangement for viola and piano that suffered nothing in its translation from the original’s ‘cello and two pianos. The close rapport between Mr. Aiso and Ms. Morgovskaya kept it cool and up to the Andantino grazioso marking, no drawn-out Pavlovan “dying swan” effect here. 

Another recipe for memorable melody I came across was that they often move mostly in single scale steps. This is certainly true of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise”—the last of his 14 Romances Op. 34 originally written for high voice and piano—which like “The Swan” has been given many arrangements. The performers again chose the one for viola and piano, and here I wondered at first whether their playing of this often lachrymal piece needed a little more overt emotion. However, their carefully graduated turning up of the flame as they approached its single ff climax in the central section proved me wrong. 

Elgar and Caroline Alice,
shortly after their marriage.
Yet a third short piece with an unforgettable main melody followed, and one within which all the above ingredients for earworming can be found. Elgar’s Salut d’amour has probably been arranged for as many different combinations of instruments as the Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninoff pieces, but here we had it in its original form for violin and piano, as composed in 1888 by Elgar as an engagement present for his fiancée, and once again the lack of swooning in Mr. Aiso’s playing was all gain—a legacy perhaps of his years with London’s premiere period-instrument band, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, whose programs were high on my list of must-listens when I lived there.

Koichi Kishi (1909-1937).
Entirely new to me were both the next piece, Dance of the Dragon for violin and piano, and its composer Koichi Kishi. Thank you as ever, Wikipedia, for outlining Kishi’s humbling range of achievements in his short life of only 28 years… not only as a violinist, composer and conductor (of his own works, with the Berlin Philharmonic, no less!), but even as a film director.

The brief Dance of the Dragon was an explosive change of mood before yet another of those ineradicable melodies—and one whose its predominance of wide leaps largely undermines recipe #2 above. This was the “Meditation” from Massenet’s opera Thaïs of 1894, and all of Mr. Aiso’s virtues of discreet vibrato, spot-on intonation, and judicious choice of tempi were once again on full display.

Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908).
Then came the final and biggest piece in the listed program, and one that really allowed him to show off his virtuoso credentials. Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen Op. 20—this time in the composer’s own arrangement for violin and piano from his orchestrated original composed in 1878—is a 10-minute, four-part fantasy on “Gypsy Airs”, and for the violinist full of fearsome challenges.

These, whether fast double-stops, seamless spiccato runs, ringing pizzicato chords, or high harmonics of other-worldly eeriness, were  all negotiated by Mr. Aiso without the slightest ruffling of the aplomb he displayed throughout the recital. All this got a deserved standing ovation from the fortunate audience in First Lutheran, after which Bach’s famous “Air on the G String” as encore formed the perfect return to earth. 


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, October 4, 2018. Photos: The performers: Courtesy Loyola Marymount University; Elgar: Medium website

Koichi Kishi: YouTube; Sarasate: Wikimedia Commons.

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