Before a note was played, exciting news warmed this unusually cold winter night. First, there was the return of principal violinist Catherine Leonard, who had been on leave due to finger strain; second, there was the announcement of a newly endowed chair in piano funded by the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation — to be occupied immediately by that master of collaborative piano, Warren Jones.
This program, bookended in lush 19-century romanticism, included duets by Maurice Ravel and Wolfgang Mozart. Johannes Brahms’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Minor, No.3, Op. 108 begins with a spare soaring violin line supported by undulating intervals in the piano but soon breaks into a heated argument. Intelligence and passion of a high order are called for with this third and last of the violin and piano sonatas by Brahms. The development section in the first movement was especially satisfying and incendiary in the hands of these artists. Leonard’s warm tone on the “Adagio,” the second movement, transcended wood and became a human voice — all the more evocative through the stretching double-stop phrases of the climax. The two artists pushed neither tempo nor volume. In general, this whole concert seemed to ebb and flow with ease, the musicians not so much rowing as trusting the current — which flowed placidly at times and at others shot the rapids. The closing “Presto agitato” alternates sections of soaring lyricism with, well, “agitation,” of course. Leonard and Jones played these contrasts for all they are worth, releasing an energy that seemed to galvanize audience attention for the rest of the evening.
Ravel’s posthumous Sonata for Violin and Piano, an early student work of the composer, was only rediscovered, published, and played in 1975 (exactly 100 years after his birth). Ravel once wrote, “I begin by considering an effect.” A single movement of 15-minute duration, the Sonata begins with a simple theme that calls out like an unanswered question but evolves into a philosophical wrestling match only to return again to quiet reflection. Jones’s piano at times sparkled like sunlight through a prism; at other times, it rose and fell like the sea. Ravel repeatedly lifts the violin line to the top of the instrument’s range, creating exposed moments that were deftly handled by Leonard.
The violin and viola duo has never been a standard form in chamber music. The Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major, K. 423 is one of only two such pieces that Mozart ever wrote. This piece is a great study in well-defined counterpoint, while its spare instrumentation unaccompanied by piano feels like “Mozart Unplugged.” Coming, as it did on Friday, after the naturalism of Ravel, the tidy classicism of the Duo sounded like a geometer’s discourse. Clearly an evening favorite for the audience, the Duo brought principal violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill to the stage. Leonard, dressed in a light blue gown, and O’Neill, in concert black, played standing, while Mozart’s dialogue found expression not only in the sound but in the musicians’ steps and sways.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of the evening was the closing work by Anton Rubinstein. A piece of great romantic substance and smarts, Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 49 was also the longest composition of the evening. Although not well-known today, the 19th-century composer, pianist, conductor, educator, and Russian cultural icon Rubinstein was a composition teacher to Tchaikovsky and the founder of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Musically, Rubinstein was informed by the Western European tradition, but his voice is entirely his own. Jones and O’Neill gave a compelling performance of this underrated jewel, and January’s performance ended with a standing ovation.