Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is known for her passionate and sometimes quirky performances as well as her casual on-stage comments. Her appearance as part of the Asheville Bravo! Concerts in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium was my first opportunity to hear her perform with the pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, who has become her regular collaborator. Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg has always been a bit of a puzzle to me. Her interpretations of works in the standard repertoire often differ from most. I find it helpful to suspend my preconceptions and accept that there may be another way, since she is indisputedly a highly intelligent and thoughtful musician. She has found a similar free spirit in McDermott, and the two demonstrated how exciting it can be to hear idiosyncratic performances based on an internally consistent interpretation.
The opening work of this recital was J.S. Bach’s Sonata in E Major, BWV 1016. The sonata was originally written for violin and harpsichord and is highly informed by the Italian baroque style out of which German baroque style developed. Using a piano instead of a harpsichord (a substitution that I believe Bach would have highly approved) raises the question of whether or not to use terraced dynamics. McDermott’s dynamics used the crescendos and diminuendos available on the modern instrument to good effect. Use of the piano also raises questions of instrumental balance. Here I felt McDermott was less convincing. In the second movement fugue, she used forte dynamics for every appearance of the subject, overshadowing the violin line and the piano’s other line. This sacrificed the intricacy of Bach’s counterpoint. The third movement passacaglia was a successful dialog being held above the ground bass, and the final allegro was most satisfying with flying fingers everywhere mastering the two instruments.
Claude Debussy may have objected to his music being called impressionistic (as Prof. Charles McKnight of UNC-Asheville informed us in his excellent pre-concert lecture) but his Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor (the last completed composition of his life) certainly matches what we have come to know as musical impressionism. The first movement Allegro vivo began in purple and then burst into an orange flare. There were sonorous G string resonances, throaty utterances and seductive slurs in Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s vocabulary. After the exquisite Intermède, the two musicians delivered an exciting Finale during which the violinist repeatedly seemed to be pulling a trigger that caused the pianist to respond. The intimacy of their mutual understanding was apparent. This was chamber music collaboration at its best.
After intermission, Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg introduced the César Frank Sonata in A by saying that she felt a close attachment to the romantic work, since it had been the first sonata she had studied. She remarked that she had a limited knowledge of romance at the time, since she had been twelve years old. After an engrossing 9/8 first movement and the second movement Allegro came the Recitativo-Fantasia, which was appropriately declamatory, ending quietly on a temporary emotional low. The players then ignited the final movement canon and development with obvious enjoyment.
In response to well-deserved applause, Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” was offered as the encore. At times Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg, a highly emotional performer, showed anguish on her face, and a solemn expression remained there even as the final chords of the resolution sounded. Hers was a quiet, reflective and more serious reading of this crowd-pleasing music than I have previously experienced. We owe the two musicians praise for having shown such depth in a work that is normally treated as just pretty. It caused audience members to reflect deeply, and was a fitting final act to a well-done recital.