On Sunday night October 23, concertgoers of the Duke community persuasion were treated to the kind of music making we have come to expect from our very best musicians – and we are so very fortunate for the opportunity to enjoy these events. Both violinist Hsiao-Mei Ku and pianist R. Larry Todd are well-known to the area's classical music fans, and for good reason. Any composer would be delighted to have these artists take on their scores; the lucky scribblers tonight were Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, Lili Boulanger, and Richard Strauss. One would have to travel far and wide to find an equal in quality of rendition. At this level it is only a matter of preference in taste, not a matter of better or worse. No need to take the plane to Carnegie Hall.
The program was an interesting choice. Fauré's Sonata No. 1 was written at age 32, and is the first work considered a masterpiece from his pen. While he was enthusiastically involved in breaking French music free from Germanic domination, especially in chamber music, he was clearly starting from the Germanic form and using it to go in characteristically French directions. Thus he used sonata form in the first movement, included a scherzo, and finished with a rondo. Ku's phrasing was with the utmost sensitivity (as it was throughout the evening) and graced the subtleties of her part most effectively. Todd found himself facing the common situation of many pianists, playing music written by pianists to exhibit their herculean techniques. (This would be true for the Debussy and Strauss as well, but we'll get to those below.) More than a few fistfuls of notes flew by in this sonata, with the challenge (well-met) of not overpowering the violinist.
The second work was Debussy's Sonata for Violin and Piano from 1917, his last work. This contrasted nicely with the early work of Fauré, and was clearly moving into the realm of 20th century composition. Here the break from Germanic models was much more pronounced. One can hardly blame the loyal Frenchman in the midst of the Great War, with the Boche at the gates of Paris for the second time in his life. The thematic material and how he played with it is far less bound to a standard, recognizable pattern, and approximates a kind of improvisatory feel. Debussy manages to avoid fracturing the work into a series of disconnected gestures, and the piece does hang together, which is frequently the hallmark of a master composer. The performers made sure that there was a unifying flow to this large-scale and intricate piece.
After a short intermission, which I am sure Todd needed after the knuckle-busters just completed, we were treated to two delightful small works by Lili Boulanger, the younger sister of Nadia, who mentored many famous composers. Lili died of tuberculosis at the age of 25 in 1918, but managed to make her contribution to the musical literature nonetheless. The Nocturne from 1911 was gentle and reflective, as nocturnes are meant to be. The "Cortège" from 1914, however, was rather energetic, and not at all funereal or elegiac. One was left to wonder at the choice of this word as a title, as there were, in the words of Todd, "jaunty rhythms and insouciant melodic arabesques." (When seeing phrases like that in the program, a reviewer cannot resist including them.)
Finally we were treated to the Strauss Violin Sonata in E-flat. This, like the Fauré, was an early work, from 1887. (One cannot help but assume from these three pieces that Strauss and Debussy had heard the Fauré sonata.) Strauss seems at his audience-pleasing best in his first couple of decades of composition, and in the last years of his life. He had enough experience under his belt by this time to crank out a major contribution to the violin sonata literature, one crowded with entries and difficult to augment. The technical demands for both performers are considerable, with special pity for the pianist. Todd showed no fatigue getting to the end, and the final movement of this sonata is steep terrain for any pianist. Ku was equal to the high energy demanded, and closed out the evening with the large Romantic flourish that brought the audience to its feet with prolonged and enthusiastic applause.