Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Duo Syncopa Shine at Classical Crossroads’ "First Friday"

Duo Syncopa: Yue Qian (violin) and Tomomi Sato (piano).


Duo Syncopa, First Fridays at First!~fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Back in May 2023 the first in a proposed series of classical chamber music recitals at the San Pedro venue Collage showcased the talents of Duo Syncopa (violinist Yue Qian and pianist Tomomi Sato) and was reviewed here. Thus far that’s been Collage’s one-and-only venture into the field, but these fine musicians springboarded to the more established territory of Classical Crossroads, Inc., and at the first “First Friday” recital of 2024 presented two relatively unfamiliar classics sandwiching a 21st century novelty.

Clara and Robert Schumann.
In April 1849, when Robert Schumann played for his wife Clara some “new pieces for piano and violoncello,” she remarked that they “…are of the nature of folk-tunes, and have a freshness and originality which delighted me." Their publication two years later was indeed as Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op.102, but as Duo Syncopa’s insightful performance (in Schumann’s alternative version for violin and piano) showed, they overall describe an expressive arc that’s distinctly more than the sum of their parts.

The first, marked Mit Humor, certainly had all the expected foot-stamping jollity, with Schumann’s heavy accent on the tune’s three-note downward stomp duly relished and a ringing bell-like quality in the movement’s central section, but #II, Langsam, immediately extended the emotional territory with its serene lilt, where Ms. Qian carefully distinguished the piano and pianissimo elements of Schumann’s long-breathed melody.

With #III, Nicht schnell, mit viel Ton zu spielen, the introspective mood deepens, but in #IV, Nicht zu rasch, Schumann brusquely shakes himself free. And then the last movement, strongly projected by Duo Syncopa as per its Stark und markiert instruction, though just as energetic further introduces a defiant element whose abruptly dismissive final cadence ends the work in markedly different expressive territory from its cheerful peasant-dance start.

Jonathan Mitchell.
The young Chicago-based composer Jonathan Mitchell is a Fellow of the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music’s Bahlest Eeble Readings program. As Ms. Qian explained, his Lighten Up! is a cycle of 12 pieces, subtitled “Twelve Notes to Self,” that chronicles his own creativity and is divided into four “chapters” of which the first two are headed “Dissatisfaction” and “Fixation.” Duo Syncopa played the first of the latter, Whose Line Is It Anyway?

In this context, the “fixation” is on the music that already exists—Mitchell’s “baggage,” or in his own question “How do I manage the tension between the old and the new?” The result proved to be an amiable five-minute tour through some celebrated “old,” beginning with the Aria from J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and climaxing in an effective and affectionately played meditation on Elgar’s “Enigma” theme, before neatly eliding back to the Bach. Perhaps the remainder of Lighten Up! reveals Mitchell’s own expressive voice.

Ms. Sato then introduced the final, and major item in the program, Schubert’s Fantasie in C Major for Piano and Violin, Op. posth. 159, D.934. This, she said, is one of her favorite works, and arguably even more difficult (for a violinist) than contemporary pieces by Paganini. What she didn’t say was that the piano part is also hugely elaborate and demanding—to the extent that no-one, surely, would dream of tackling it unless they not only had the technical skills but also were convinced of its worth.

Josef Slavík.
After all, following the Fantasie’s premiere by the young Bohemian violin virtuoso Josef Slavík (1806-1833) in January 1828, only a month after its completion, a contemporary critic wrote that it “occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of the piece.”

Had he stayed, he might just have got it. The Fantasie is not only the last and longest of Schubert’s works for violin and piano, but through its seven linked sections describes an asymmetrical structural arc of great originality. The first section, Andante molto, introduces a long-breathed violin melody over piano ostinati, both parts marked pianissimo. Duo Syncopa’s account was ideally poised between the other-worldly serenity so often met with in late Schubert and a sense of onward progress and implicit discovery.

Franz Schubert, c.1827.
Only 36 measures long, this arrives at a long-held fermata over a chord of E major, before precipitating into a vigorous Allegretto. With some hints of a sonata design, its six sub-sections dance through a wealth of intricate interplay between violin and piano, faultlessly executed by Duo Syncopa, before arriving at another fermata, leading to the Fantasie’s third section.

This is the heart of the work, and comprises a long theme—drawn from Schubert’s own lied, Sei mir gegrüßt (Greetings), D. 741, of some six years earlier—and three variations of increasing textural elaboration. Schubert marks both halves of each variation to be repeated, and Duo Syncopa’s decision to observe every one of the repeats was triumphantly vindicated, with subtle adjustments to pace, dynamic, and balance keeping any chance of monotony firmly at bay.

At this point, I suppose one might feel some slight sympathy with that first-time Viennese audience, by now almost 20 minutes into a work with no obvious overall shape yet discernible and no clue where it might yet go. What in fact happens is a coda to the third variation that ends with a long drawn cadence into a definite “ah-ha!” moment—a reprise of the opening melody.

Now Schubert’s masterplan emerges. This fourth section is much shorter than that opening, as is the next, a recapitulation of the Allegretto, now up-tempo-ed to Allegro vivace. Then Schubert draw the strings tighter yet on his grand design with a revisit of the variation theme: surely it’s not all beginning again? No, this last appearance is a brief 26 measures only, after which a whirlwind Presto brings what is surely one of the less-lauded treasures of Schubert’s miraculous final year of creativity to its conclusion.

Both in their measure-by-measure mastery of its intricacies and in their overall pacing and shaping of the grand design, Ms. Qian and Ms. Sato thoroughly had the Fantasie under their fingers and in their heads and hearts, as you can hear for yourselves in the recording on Vimeo thoughtfully provided by Classical Crossroads. Let’s hope they return soon. 


“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, January 5, 2024.
Images: The performers: Classical Crossroads, Inc.; The Schumanns: Getty images; Jonathan Mitchell: Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music; Josef Slavík: Encyklopedie Praha 2; Schubert: Wikimedia Commons.

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