Monday, November 15, 2021

Grieg and Franck Violin Sonatas for "Second Sunday"

left: Laurence Kayaleh; right: Bernadene Blaha.


Bernadene Blaha and Laurence Kayaleh, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

The November recital in Classical Crossroads’ Second Sundays at Two series, recorded—as is now customary for this season in the presence of a small invited audience, duly Covid-vetted and masked—for YouTube posting on the due date, revealed an intriguing symmetry between the pair of sonatas played by Laurence Kayaleh (violin) and Bernadene Blaha (piano).

Edvard Grieg was 20 years junior to César Franck (their birthdays falling respectively in June 1843 and December 1822), but the former’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in F major, Op. 8 (the first of his three) was composed in 1865, whereas Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, M. 8, did not emerge from his pen until two decades later, in 1886. Thus we heard the work of, on the one hand, a very young man, and on the other, a composer in late middle age.

What is so intriguing is that whereas in his sonata Grieg—usually characterized as the author of lyrical piano miniatures often nationalistic in subject and character—showed himself at that early age the confident master of traditional sonata design with only passing hints of Norwegian folk music, the mature Franck took only what he wanted and no more from such formality, evolving an innovatory structure as dramatic as it is original, whose four movements form one of the most cumulatively powerful wholes in the violin/piano literature.

Edvard Grieg in his 20s.
This contrast between the two works, but also their shared vividness and memorability, was underlined by the performances, as vibrant and driven as they were eloquent and sensitive, from Ms. Kayaleh and Ms. Blaha, who were clearly relishing their return to live concert performance after many months of Covid-dictated seclusion.

They launched the Grieg with all the “con brio” the first movement’s marking asks for and, given the plethora of memorable ideas deployed in the long exposition, it was good to be able to hear them all again via the duo's observation of the formal repeat. My only reservation was over their, for me, rather too lingering treatment of the thirteen Andante measures that link the exposition’s end to the beginning of the development, which slowed the music to a real “dark moment” rather than the passing reflective interlude that its context seems to imply.

Grieg’s obedience to traditional form goes only so far and no farther, the second of the three movements being essentially a minuet-and-trio but with a canny hint of slow movement. Ms. Kayaleh and Ms. Blaha emphasized the latter with their stately treatment of the outer Allegretto quasi Andantino sections, and then plunged wholeheartedly into the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle impression in the Più vivo “trio.” Finally, they seized the finale’s Allegro molto vivace instruction and, bypassing the marked repeat, ran with it, even managing to accelerate into the Presto that Grieg piles on for the conclusion.

César Franck.
While Grieg’s Op. 8 is confident and memorable enough to make one regret—as do the second and third violin sonatas, the cello sonata, the piano concerto, and even the early symphony—that he did not give us more large-scale, multi-movement works, César Franck’s one-and-only Violin Sonata is a defining statement of his entire career, and simply one of the greatest works in the violin sonata repertoire.

The limpidity with which Ms. Kayaleh floated the first theme made one marvel once again how something so gentle and apparently self-contained could become the source of such resourceful and unpredictable development as ensues, while Ms. Blaha’s no less eloquent handling of the second subject underlined the originality with which Franck makes each of the two instruments “own” their respective melodies.

Ms. Blaha unerringly clarified the leading voices within the tumble of piano figuration that launches and underpins much of the dramatic second movement—effectively the work’s scherzo but not thus named—while Ms. Kayaleh was truly molto dolce in her projection of the poco più lento and Quasi lento sections that Franck intercalates into the tumult.

Again, in the seemingly-improvisatory-but-not-really Recitativo-Fantasia that is as original a take on the role of “slow movement” as its predecessor is a scherzo, both players were unfailing responsive to Franck’s multiplicity of expressive indications, so that when the finale opened with its plain-spoken but indelibly memorable main theme, it seemed like a thankful homecoming after a long, unpredictable, and sometimes perilous journey. What a masterpiece this sonata is, and how masterfully the Kayaleh/Blaha duo realized it. 

The two brief encores that followed, Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin and Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of “It Ain't Necessarily So” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, were just two small bon-bons to top an already rich feast, all of which can be enjoyed for the next month on YouTube. Don’t miss it. 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, November 14, 2021, 2.00 p.m. 
Images: The performers: Classical Crossroads Inc.; Grieg and Franck portraits: Wikimedia Commons.

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