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Like most other subgenres in the classical music canon, violin repertoire seems to be dominated by German and Austrian composers. Come up with a quick mental list of the instrument's most famous repertoire - I'll bet that you first thought of Bach's partitas, Beethoven's sonatas, concerti by Mendelssohn and Brahms, and perhaps a few pieces from the rest of the world.
But an honest survey of the repertoire doesn't really bear out this apparent German dominance. Contemporary concertgoers are as fond of the great concerti by Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and Sibelius as they are of the German masterpieces. Even a quick and unscientific look through the lists of violin repertoire on Petrucci Music Library or Wikipedia will show a fairly even spread of music from all over Eastern and Western Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, the British Isles, and the Americas. While I leave you to ponder the question of why we always seem to think of the Germans first when we think of Classical music, I'll gladly report on a pair of performers advocating music from "not Germany."
The program booklet alone was enough to get me excited; the first half boasted a rarely-heard early work by Messiaen and a very late one by Debussy, while the second drove the nails deep with virtuosic showpieces by Ysaÿe and Saint-Saëns. This concert was good before it started.
After Lawrence greeted the audience, he took a moment to provide some background on Olivier Messiaen's Theme and Variations from 1932. This work was a wedding gift for his first wife, Claire Delbos – an appropriate choice for performance on the eve of Valentine's Day.
Those who know Messiaen's work will instantly recognize the composer's unique pitch language in this early piece, though his rhythmic language had not yet taken shape. Lawrence's opening notes in this early but characteristically ecstatic work were infinitely delicate and sweet. While I love a dark, sonorous, and robust violin tone, I must say that Lawrence's delicate, singing tone was a perfect match for the Messaien. Shteinberg played the sparkling, gem-like piano part with perfect dynamics, providing Lawrence with a broad and colorful, but never overpowering, accompaniment.
Whereas the Messiaen variations represented a young composer with an individual voice but as-of-yet undeveloped technique, the Debussy Sonata in G minor (1917) is the work of a mature composer with economical control over a laconic language. Lawrence explained that this last of Debussy's works is compressed to the point of being potentially vexing on first listen – musical ideas fly by with little extra development. The work is by no means confused or scattered, but rather so refined and crystalline that listeners barely have time to process the ideas.
The Debussy was lovely, fleeting, and very clever. In the first movement, long note values are superimposed over a quick tempo. Once the listener has become accustomed to the fast pulse, the long notes give the impression of very rapid, but utterly smooth motion – somewhat like cruising in an airliner. Lawrence and Shteinberg kept confident control over the tempo, even as they expressively stretched and compressed it.
The concert's second half went backwards in style, if not necessarily in time, with some post-Romantic repertoire. Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was one of the most influential performers of his time, but was also a prolific composer. His compositions often reflect his prodigious technique, and his six Sonatas (1923) for solo violin additionally reference the technique and style of other violinists. The third sonata, "Ballade," was dedicated to Ysaÿe's younger contemporary George Enescu.
The "Ballade" sonata makes extensive use of double stops, and Lawrence maintained impressively accurate intonation even high up on the fingerboard.
The evening's final work was also its longest, Sonata in D minor by Camille Saint-Saëns. This work from 1885 has four movements, but the only pause comes between the second and third, giving the impression of two long movements.
The Saint-Saëns is a dense and lengthy work that culminates in a thrilling finale. The last couple of minutes leave the performers with no time to breathe, but Lawrence and Shteinberg kept on top of the beat to bring the "moto perpetuo" finale to a commanding close.
What a refreshing concert by two fine performers. "Franco-Belgian" was a totally convincing exploration of the depth and variety available in the repertoire. Bravi!