Thursday, October 17, 2019

Beethoven, Falla, and Ravel at Rolling Hills

Valeria Morgovskaya (piano) and Ken Aiso (violin), at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.


Ken Aiso and Valeria Morgovskaya, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

I don’t know if including the Sonata Per Piano-Forte con L’Accompagnam’t Del Violono Op. 30 Nr. 3 (cf the surviving manuscript, right, probably a copyist’s score), as the opener to their Sunday afternoon recital at RHUMC, was a deliberate tribute by Ken Aiso and Valeria Morgovskaya to Beethoven in the ongoing 250th anniversary celebration juggernaut, but if so, it was a cannily subtle and intriguing choice.

That way of titling a violin sonata—with the violin secondary to the piano—runs all the way through to Beethoven’s last, written in 1812, but even in Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major, composed some 10 years earlier, the instruments had already achieved parity. Both lead off in unison with an abrupt little inverted arch motif played twice, part-gruff and part-playful, after which Beethoven tosses his genial melodies back and forth between them—in these performers’ hands not a catch being dropped. Repeating the exposition also helped to get those melodies fixed in the mind.

The second movement is headed Tempo di Minuetto, but Beethoven’s careful modifier, ma molto moderato e grazioso, defines this as a slow movement and not a scherzo precursor. Its remarkable evenness of mood could lapse into monotony were not the main melody so insidiously ingratiating, Beethoven artfully tweaking its progress in a quasi-variation manner. Mr. Aiso and Ms. Morgovskaya kept the movement moving and indeed, I felt, could have allowed it to smile a little more without becoming unduly sentimental.

The brief finale is a prime example of the young(ish) Beethoven’s insouciant brilliance and economy, swinging back and forth between uproarious repetitions of its main theme and little spasms of mock anger. Again, Mr. Aiso and Ms. Morgovskaya kept the textures cleanly alive without being unduly helter-skelter.

Manuel de Falla in Paris, c. 1914.
Manuel de Falla’s 1914 Siete Canciones populares Españolas for voice and piano are much recorded, but the Suite Populaire Espagnole that he and the violinist Paul Kochanskí reworked from them in 1926 seems rather less well-known. As the performance of this that was the duo’s next item showed, this is a pity; its movements work equally well on the violin as sung, especially when as characterfully varied as Mr. Aiso played them.

The first song, El paño moruno, retains its location in the violin version, but the second is omitted (one wonders why?) and the remaining five ordered differently. The original fifth song, Nana, comes next, and after the opener’s jaunty brilliance (with pizzicati over the piano introduction immediately demonstrating that the reworking is more extensive than simply transferring the sung line to the violin over the unchanged accompaniment), Mr. Aiso played it with a haunted, almost theremin-like tone.

In succession Canción (VI in the original), Polo (VII), Asturiana (III), and Jota (IV) were variously passionate, glassily ethereal, earthy, muted, wild, strummed… with Ms. Morgovskaya’s piano in each case conjuring within a few measures the differing colors and rhythms of the Spanish regions whence the songs originated. In all, their performance of the Suite Populaire Espagnole broadened their expressive range from that appropriate to Beethoven’s early(ish) sonata, and this expansion reached its zenith in their account of Ravel’s dazzling Tzigane, composed 1922-24.

Maurice Ravel, c. 1925.
This piece is a kind of apotheosis of the idea of “gypsy music”—somewhat as La Valse is of the Viennese waltz—but its success or failure in performance lies wholly with the violinist, who in both the original version with piano and in its later orchestration has the stage to himself for almost half the 10-minute duration.

Mr. Aiso bit decisively into the opening Lento, quasi cadenza, and then from that elemental substratum fully projected the music’s meditations, broodings, and—once joined by the piano—its progressive opening out into a rhythmic, rhapsodic, and ultimately kaleidoscopic wildness.

After this tour de force, acclaimed by the RHUMC audience, it was back to Spain for the encore, though filtered through Ravel's sensibilities in his 1907 Pièce en forme de Habanera (as with the Falla, arranged from a vocal original), the sultriness of whose violin line is underpinned by a persistent octave leap touched in on the piano that, for me, always echoes Bernard Herrmann’s musical embodiment of Hitchcock’s dream-like vision in Vertigo.


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, October 13, 2019, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performers: Linda Pelteson Wehrli; Beethoven manuscript: IMSLP; Falla: Composer website; Ravel: Wikimedia Commons.

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