Cosmopolitan Paris: An evening with Cho-Liang Lin and Jon Kimura Parker

11.15.11
Cho-Liang Lin
bachtrack

By Evan Mitchell

 

What’s in a name, or for that matter, a label? Why does music “sound” German, American, French, or Russian? Violinist Cho-Liang Lin and pianist Jon Kimura Parker presented a duo recital at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall Tuesday evening, titled “An Evening in Paris”. Their thoughtful program consisted of works by French composers of the early twentieth century, and also by (long-time Parisian) Stravinsky. This kind of open-ended theme typically leads an audience to draw its own conclusions. Here, though, these works resonated (and contrasted) with one another in a way that was telling; the “modernity” of Modernism and its contemporaneous movements in the arts, and indeed the “Frenchness” of French music, were not one-dimensional but rather the result of a variety of influences and cultures.

Grossly oversimplified, the French aesthetic in the arts prizes finely crafted beauty on the surface. This stands (so the dichotomy goes) opposed to the Germanic ideal of emotional truth being buried deep within a work, waiting to be interpreted. The pieces heard this evening – by Stravinsky, Debussy, Poulenc, and Ravel – all shared certain aspects of the archetypal “French” sound. Their source material and inspirations, however, ranged from South American popular music to Baroque suites to the World Wars to the blues.

The substantial works were: the Suite Italienne, arranged by Stravinsky and violinist Samuel Dushkin, comprising an introduction and five neo-Baroque movements based on the ballet Pulcinella; Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, dating from the years of the First World War; the Poulenc Sonata for Violin and Piano, written during the Second and full of anguish (it memorialized Federico García Lorca); and Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, the most remarkable aspect of which is the second movement, “Blues”, replete with banjo-esque strumming on the violin and swung bass riffs in the piano part. These larger works were interspersed with several charming shorter ones: Debussy’s song “Beau Soir”, transcribed by Jascha Heifetz; a tango arranged by Stravinsky and Dushkin; and two pieces by Ravel, the Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré and the Pièce en forme de Habanera.

The works were cleverly woven together. There was the Debussy mélodie, a work when the composer was 16, coupled with the Violin Sonata, the final work he completed. The Ravel set matched a late masterpiece (the Violin Sonata) with one from his student years (the Habanera), and also the Berceuse, in which Ravel used solfége syllables (“Do, Re, Mi,” etc…) to make a tune out of the older composer Fauré’s name. The most interesting link between works on the program was a personal one connecting the two transcriptions done by Stravinsky and Dushkin. After their performance of the Suite Italienne Mr. Lin told the fascinating story of his connection to the Tango, the other Stravinsky-Dushkin arrangement. In 1983, after deciding on his first violin purchase, Mr. Lin went to pick up the instrument from one Mrs. Dushkin. The violin had belonged to her late husband, and before leaving her home Mr. Lin was given the manuscript to this unpublished work, which, like the Suite Italienne, had been a showpiece for the duo on their 1932 tour of Europe.

Mr. Lin and Mr. Parker were at the height of their powers Tuesday evening, in playing that combined immaculate precision with great introspection, varied colors, and sincerity. While hypersensitive to detail and in command of myriad timbres, moments like the outbursts of pathos in the Allegro vivo of Poulenc’s Sonata and the glorious release of the major-harmony climaxes in the Ravel Sonata’s otherwise demure Allegretto were rendered with warmth and vigor. The dramatic pacing of the evening, both over the course of the sonatas themselves and especially in comparison with the casual grace of the short pieces, lent such straightforward statements of emotionality even greater poignancy, set in relief against the cool, shimmering surfaces ever-present in the recital.

To bring things truly full circle, the duo played an arrangement of Ástor Piazzolla’s Libertango as an encore. (Mr. Lin announced the work, admitting to having caught the “tango bug”.) Somehow this was a most fitting end to the evening – a piece by an Argentinian, with an auxiliary relation to only one brief work on the program, an appropriation of Latin music by two Russians living in Paris. Piazzolla’s music is closer than many composers’ to vernacular styles, but still dressed in formal European trimmings for the concert hall. As an epilogue to an evening of highly cosmopolitan works, the tango served as a reminder that boundaries in art music – genre, nationality, or a host of other criteria – are, while convenient in principle, never clear.