Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Gallic Magic at January’s “Second Sunday” Recital

Robert Thies and Kerenza Peacock at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.

Robert Thies and Kerenza Peacock, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Debussy, c.1880.
This first Classical Crossroads “Second Sunday” recital of 2024 presented an all-French violin/piano program performed by one very well-known figure at these concerts, the pianist Robert Thies, and joined by an entirely new one, the violinist Kerenza Peacock, British-born but now resident in LA. First up were three arrangements of miniatures by Claude Debussy. Introducing them, Mr. Thies averred that generally he was something of a music purist, preferring original versions, but in the present case all three were so perfectly achieved that they felt like originals.

Debussy’s Beau Soir (Beautiful evening) L. 84 is a song possibly written as early as 1878 when he was aged 16, but revised and published in 1891. In this famous transcription by Jascha Heifetz, the subtle undulations of the fairly low-lying vocal line transferred effortlessly to the violin, played by Ms. Peacock with a veiled, husky, confiding tone that immediately compelled the ear. With the young Debussy’s haunting strains still in our ears, Mr. Thies read, in translation, the song’s lyric by the poet and novelist Paul Bourget (1852-1935): 
Paul Bourget.

When in the setting sun the streams are rosy
And when a warm breeze floats over the fields of grain, 
A counsel to be happy seems to emanate from all things
And rise towards the troubled heart;

In advice to enjoy the pleasure of being alive,
While one is young and the evening is beautiful,
For we shall go as this wave goes
It to the sea—we to the grave.

Debussy, c.1908.
The other two arrangements were just as felicitous as Mr. Thies promised. In his transcription of La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair), the eighth of Debussy’s Préludes, Book I, L. 125 (1910), the American violinist Arthur Hartmann’s transference of the opening melodic line directly to the violin was magically effective, while the waltz La plus que lente (More than slow), L. 128 (1910) acquired a smoky, café intimacy and emotional resonance as played by Ms. Peacock and Mr. Thies in the arrangement by Léon Roques (1839-1923).

Arthur Hartmann.
(Both Léon Roques and Arthur Hartmann (1881-1956) were composers in their own right, the latter being the author of many beguiling violin/piano miniatures, as well as an arrangement of La fille aux cheveux de lin that is arguably as effective as Heifetz’s, if a little more texturally elaborate).

These three pieces could be regarded as a delectable trio of bonnes bouches to prepare the aural palate for the recital’s main course, which was the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13 (1875-76) by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). Despite his long creative span of around six decades, Fauré’s output in most musical genres was relatively small in number, and of his only 10 large-scale multi-movement chamber works, this was the first to be written, when he was still relatively unknown as a composer.

However, its 1877 premiere was a great success, earning high praise from the influential Saint-Saëns, Fauré’s teacher and lifelong friend, for its “novel forms, exquisite modulations, uncommon tone colors, [and] use of the most unexpected rhythms,” and it was soon taken into the repertoire of leading violinists of the day. It’s still probably Fauré’s most popular chamber work.

Portrait of Gabriel Fauré as
a young man, by Paul Mathey.
As with his teacher, Fauré here and in his other major chamber works gives the lie to the sometimes-repeated canard that French composers were not comfortable with sonata form, and in her engagingly informal introduction Ms. Peacock also noted some influence of Wagner, as well as Saint-Saëns’ comment that the whole sonata was covered in a “sheen of magic.

There was plenty of magic in hers and Mr. Thies’ performance, with the majestic amplitude of the Allegro molto first movement enhanced by the welcome observation of its exposition repeat, and a somber weight and then growing passion of utterance given to the barcarolle rhythm and sighing melody that imbue the second movement Andante.

The scurrying chase of the Allegro vivo Scherzo was perfectly embodied in Mr. Thies’ nimble finger work and Ms. Peacock’s deliciously exact differentiation between the arco and pizzicato elements of Fauré’s violin writing, while they switched tracks to, and then back from, the dolce expressiveness of the (unmarked) trio section with seeming effortlessness. Fauré's Allegro quasi presto instruction for the finale is one of those markings where the music as heard seems to belie its implications. No driven urgency here, but rather a serene but purposeful forward motion.

After this splendid account of Fauré’s first chamber masterpiece, the RHUMC audience was treated to a not-entirely-unexpected dessert, a robustly affectionate account of the Berceuse (1864, rev. 1893) from his Dolly Suite, with Ms. Peacock revealing hitherto unsuspected keyboard chops by joining Mr. Thies on a second piano stool in the piece’s original piano four-hands guise. You can enjoy a reprise of the livestream video of the whole recital here


 Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, January 14, 2024, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performance: Classical Crossroads; Young Debussy: Bridgman Images; Hartmann: Prone to Violins blogspot; Mature Debussy, Bourget: Wikimedia Commons; Fauré: Art Renewal Center.

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