The Ernest W. Nelson Music Room on the lovely East Campus of Duke University had a good turnout of music lovers despite the large number of events scheduled on the campus. Internationally renowned violinist and scholar Katharina Uhde joined pianist and famed Mendelssohn specialist R. Larry Todd for four duo works seldom programed at all or at least not in their original forms. The “anonymously” written notes covered each work in extraordinary detail and saved this writer much effort.
The Sonata in A, D.574, by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), sometimes called “The Grand Duo,” was composed in 1817 and is one of two sonatas intended for virtuoso players. It is a good example of the composer’s coming to terms with the shadow of Beethoven by “fusing the lyricism of the art song with the structural rigor and thematic ‘working out’ of the classical forms.” In the opening of its four movements, “a gently rocking accompaniment” in the piano serves as the support for the seamless melodies spun by the violin. Beethoven’s stylistic influence is stronger in the following scherzo, which combines extremes of dynamics with a toying with meter. The following Andante and Allegro vivace movements are dominated by Schubert’s inexhaustible melodic invention.
Balance between the piano and the violin was excellent throughout the concert; the lid was supported by the short stick, and Todd was ever so responsive to scaling the instrument’s dynamics. Uhde produced a fine, full tone combined with immaculate intonation. The second movement was delightful as each player parried to bring off the teasing between triple and duple meters.
It is endlessly fascinating to compare the approaches of 19th century musicians and the 20th century and beyond “Early Music” or Historically Informed Performance (HIP) exponents toward older music. The “HIPsters” try exactly to reconstruct Baroque and older scores down to instruments built to period specifications as well as inferred performance practices. Nineteenth century musicians tried to “modernize” the music, to force it into the then-current Romantic style since Bach was found to be “too dry or complex.”
In view of some later adaptations of the great Chaconne in D minor (from S.1004), by J. S. Bach (1717-1840), what Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) did was quite restrained. Mendelssohn kept the violin part unaltered but used the keyboard to fill “out its harmonic underpinnings” that are implied only in the solo version. Uhde played the solo violin part superbly while Todd made the best possible case for ears and minds alien to such an approach.
It was a special treat to get to hear a fine example composed by the 19th century virtuoso pianist Clara Schumann (1819-96). Works by women composers were neglected until the rise of feminism in the 20th century unearthed neglected works of the past while beginning to remove barriers to contemporary women composers. The free form character piece was a popular form used by 19th century composers, and Clara’s Drei Romanzen, Op. 22 (1853) are delightful examples that ought to be taken into the repertoire. The opening Andante is like a nocturne. The following elegiac Allegretto seems like a Romantic invocation of Spring with the chirping of idealized birds. The third Romance, marked "Leidenschaftlich schnell" (implying barely contained passion) builds to a soaring intensity. Uhde and Todd played evocatively, conjuring the night song-like quality of the first, the marvelous suggestion of stylized nature in the second, or the closely contained passion of the third.
Beethoven changed his mind about movements from time to time. The Große Fuge, Op. 133, is the overpowering original concluding movement for his Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130. He replaced it with a shorter Allegro. Something similar happened with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A, Op. 30, No. 1. Instead of its current third movement, Allegretto con variazoni, Beethoven originally composed a brilliant Presto which he pulled, only to use it to end his magnificent Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47, the “Kreutzer.”
Uhde and Todd have been giving a number of recitals encompassing all ten violin sonatas in conjunction with their recording of the complete cycle. These interpretations and performances have been exceptional as was this of the original three movements of Op. 30, No. 1. It was wonderful to get to hear the searing intensity of the Presto in its first use, but it really does work better as a brilliant finish to the "Kreutzer." This was a wonderful evening of superb musicianship and thought-provoking programming.