Distinguished faculty member of the Duke University Department of Music and member of the Ciompi Quartet, Professor Hsiao-mei Ku was joined by Larry Todd, Arts and Science Professor of Music, in recital in the Nelson Music Room. Their program featured works that spanned two-hundred years, by Mozart (1756-1791), Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847), Elgar (1857-1934) and Ma Sicong (1912-1934).   

The duo opened the program with one of Mozart’s mature instrumental compositions, Sonata for violin and piano in B-flat, K. 454 (1784). Written for Italian violinist, Regina Strinassacchi (1764-1839), the piece calls for a great deal of refinement, notably the delicate lace-like ornamentation and subtle articulation with the bow. Hsiao-mei Ku recreated that elegant classical sound. And perhaps it was the perfect acoustics and ambience of the hall, that I imagined that first performance.

After playing Mendelssohn’s Sonata in F (1838), Hsiao-mei Ku recognized and thanked Larry Todd for collaborating. A scholar who has written the definitive biography, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), Todd, she said, ” . . . knows this piece right side up, upside down and inside out.” According to Todd’s program notes, this particular work was left unpublished by the composer and was only recently released (2009). Performing the original first version of the sonata made this a special occasion. Indeed, the piano passages, especially in the middle movement, reflected careful attention. Todd’s performance was beautiful. And together they breathed new life into a composition that had laid in rest, literally for decades.

The piece I most anticipated was Elgar’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E minor, Op. 82 (1918). Written at the end of the First World War, it is one of Elgar’s most exquisite chamber music compositions. The expressive melodies, rich harmony and galloping rhythms of the first movement, immediately seduce the listener. But Elgar must have also imagined the sound created by the artistry of the violinist. In her liner notes Eva Zöllner writes, “The markedly Brahmsian tone of the opening movement . . . suggests that the composer was consciously seeking to evoke the sounds of an earlier age,” (Teldec Studio Berlin, October 1995). Todd and Ku performed with energy and passion. The audience rewarded them with a standing ovation, and the two performers, hand in hand, smiled as they took a second bow.

In memory of the 100th anniversary of Hsiao-mei Ku’s teacher, Ma Sicong, they also performed two of his pieces for violin and piano: Nostalgia (1937) and Rondo No. 4 (1983). It was a splendid evening.