In Walden Henry David Thoreau pleads the special value of classics. “Shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book? As if Plato were my townsman and I never saw him . . . His Dialogues, which contain what was immortal in him, lie on the next shelf, and yet I never read them.” Thoreau’s point about access to great minds of the past applies as much to music as philosophy. But there is this important difference: Any literate person might read and recite the words of Plato, but very few can “recite” the works of Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. Access to a truly great musical “utterance” — like Beethoven’s Op. 9, the “Kreutzer Sonata” for example — depends entirely on elite musicians who have trained their whole lives. By their grace the composer becomes our townsman, if only for a night; they have the power to resurrect what is immortal. Without them, Beethoven would lie on the shelf unread, or what is worse, mute.
Why more fellow “townspeople” did not flock to Hahn Hall on Friday night, I will never fathom; the occasion was an especially rare pleasure for me. Thirty years ago I fell in love with the “Kreutzer Sonata” when I acquired a recording of Isaac Stern (violin) and Eugene Istomin (piano) — listening to it over and over again. The work is a 40-minute epic in miniature, a wondrous landscape, a near and distant world. Yet never in all these years have I enjoyed the privilege of hearing it played live. It was like finally meeting a penpal for the first time after corresponding for 30 years. Violinist Kristin Lee and pianist Molly Morkoski brought Beethoven himself into the room — the wit, drama, irony, intimacy, and brilliant imagination — truly one of the most satisfying musical experiences in memory.
The two women were well in sync, drawing-out pauses, navigating the storms and calms for maximal drama. And there were wonderful moments, too, when the music was bigger than the both of them, and swept all of us up with its own force. The first movement, fierce and bewitching, summoned irresistible applause (by an audience that is typically conscientious of concert etiquette). The second is a great example of Beethoven’s penchant for variation writing (think of it as the Romantic equivalent of jazz), and these musicians made it their own. A trilly, floral body of sound issued from Morkoski’s keys in a mood of sheer play in the first variation, and Lee’s answer in the “hoedown” that followed was even, almost legato, not digging and staccato as per other interpreters. The minor variation next was not milked for overly luxurious melodrama, but kept fresh and moving without sacrificing sorrow.
Morkoski, who studied with the great collaborative pianist Gilbert Kalish, was the thread-soul of the evening, and performed another monument of heavy-lifting, this time with Camerata’s principal violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill. Sergei Rachmaninoff composed Sonata in G minor, Op. 19 for cello and piano, but the work sings convincingly in the upper register of the viola, as O’Neill passionately demonstrated. Apart from the evening’s pairing of the Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, one cannot listen to Op. 19 without hearing parallels with the century-elder “Kreutzer.” First, there is the solo string introductory plaint, an announcement or invocation almost. Then there are the thick pianistic textures, vibrant, relentless. And there is motivic similarity with at least one theme. O’Neill’s presence was 110 percent, the work granting full range for the violist’s rapturous tone control.
Both shorter works, which book-ended the program, featured Lee’s virtuosity. Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2 for unaccompanied violin begins, obsessively, with torn fragments of Bach, patched together in a mesmerizing, second-guessing sort of meditation. In short order, Lee set the tone for the evening with her focus and conviction. Morkoski joined Lee at the conclusion of the program for Pablo de Sarasate’s beloved fantasy based on Bizet’s Carmen — a Spaniard’s take on a Frenchman’s take on passionate Spain. In other words, the heat was turned up, and Lee sizzled in this violin showpiece. The closing theme — an accelerating Danse boheme — percolated like caffeine in my brain and bounced in my step, as I made my way out of the hall, grinning.