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Ibragimova imaginatively juxtaposes the classical with the modern for SFP

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Last night at the SFJAZZ Center, Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova gave her second concert for San Francisco Performances (SFP). Since her debut was a solo recital (given as a subscriber gift concert in April of 2012), this was also her first San Francisco appearance with her long-time accompanist, the French pianist Cédric Tiberghien. They met in 2005 through the New Generation Artists program organized by BBC Radio 3, and since that time they have been building up a repertoire of impressive scope. Their performances of the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas were recorded for the Wigmore Live label, while on the modern side they have recorded the complete works for violin and piano of both Maurice Ravel and Karol Szymanowski on Hyperion.

Nevertheless, that breadth of interests could not have anticipated last night’s ambitious experiment in programming. On the one hand we had two of the “big three” composers examined in depth in Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. However, the program was structured to provide each of these composers with a twentieth-century “partner,” both of whom (perhaps by design) happened to be students of Arnold Schoenberg. John Cage’s 1950 “Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard” was performed between two of Mozart’s two-movement sonatas, K. 301 in G major and K. 304 in E minor. Following the intermission, the four pieces for violin and piano of Anton Webern’s Opus 7, composed in 1910, served as an “overture” for Beethoven’s best-known violin sonata, Opus 47 (“Kreutzer”) in A major.

It is unclear what motivated this arrangement. (Given that Cage was never shy about expressing his dislike for Beethoven, at least one can appreciate why he was “partnered” with Mozart.) If I had to make a conjecture, it would involve the approach to the structural architecture of composition. Much of Rosen’s book has to do how Mozart and Beethoven could be so expressive within such apparently constraining structural frameworks and how they each expanded the scope of those frameworks. Both Webern and Cage abandoned those frameworks, experimenting with new approaches while creating compositions of radically shorter duration. Both were presented as composers seeking new paths, rather than mere iconoclasts. (Those idols were already crumbling when Schoenberg began work on his Gurre-Lieder in 1900.)

Each half of the program had its own particular set of virtues. Both Mozart sonatas were composed in 1778 while he was “on the road” (K. 301 in Mannheim and K. 304 in Paris). Mozart was 22 years old at the time, no longer a “prodigy act” and, instead, seeking gainful employment or at least a generous patron. In many respects K. 301 has much of the elegance of his 1777 piano concerto (K. 271 in E-flat major). However, that elegance has been distilled down to a much briefer time scale; and even the slightest suggestion of a virtuoso cadenza has been dispatched.

K. 304, on the other hand, is “minor-key Mozart,” a sign to all Mozart-lovers that he is going to be pushing the envelope. Indeed, when one listens to the rhetoric of K. 304, one quickly recognizes a boldness of voice that would reverberate not only into Beethoven but beyond into Franz Schubert. The result is that, in both of these relative brief pieces, Mozart is firing on all cylinders with regard to thematic interplay, harmonic progression, and counterpoint, all couched in a rhetoric that can be both beguiling and adventurous at the same time.

The Cage composition dispenses with all of this except for a very basic conception of melody, so basic that accompaniment is no longer part of the process. Instead, melody is a succession of sonorities. In the violin part Cage specifies which string is to be bowed for each of the tones. However, he also deploys rests to create hocket effects, through which the melody “migrates” between violin and piano, as if each performer completes a thought of the other. The only structure that signifies in this piece is rhythm. This is not defined in terms of repeated patterns but rather as a succession of “units” of different durational lengths. Thus, each melody is based on the same pattern of those lengths given as different numbers of pulse beats: 3½, 3½, 4, 4, 3, 4. (This is a grammatical strategy that Cage first explored in his early all-percussion compositions.)

The first half of the program was thus a study in contrast, in which Cage’s radical contrast with Mozart prepared the listener for the equally dramatic contrast Mozart made with himself in the shift from K. 301 to K. 304. One could not have wished for a better performance approach to reveal this logic. It was clear that both performers were equally committed to the service of these contrasting “voices.” Particularly impressive were the smooth transitions in Cage’s hocket effects, almost as if Ibragimova and Tiberghien had pooled their resources to create the impression that each Cage melody was the product of a single instrument of considerable sonorous diversity. Furthermore, the positive spirits they brought to their Mozart performances established a welcoming environment in which Cage’s differences could be both accepted and appreciated.

In contrast the rhetoric for the second half of the program was more austere. If, by specifying each string, Cage was “micromanaging” the violinist, Webern was more interested in holding a magnifying glass to each instance of sound coming from both violin and piano. Some of Ibragimova’s sustained tones barely rose above the threshold of audibility. In this respect it is worth observing that, while many have complained about the dry acoustics of the SFJAZZ Center (and then felt a need to compensate with not only microphones but also processed reverberations), it was through that dry ambience that one could sense the presence of the violin, even when its dynamics were at their softest. (Last night also brought the good fortune of an audience willing to keep quiet for the sake of hearing those soft dynamics, rather than “fighting back” with nervous coughs.)

In the context of Webern’s intense approach to brevity (the total number of measures for all four pieces in 67), the assertive rhetoric of Beethoven’s Opus 47 was almost a shock. (Since the sonata is so familiar, the impact of its aggressive dynamics was hardly a surprise.) This sonata finally gave Ibragimova and Tiberghien an opportunity to let loose with full exuberance, and they did not disappoint. This was a delightfully fresh reading of one of the great warhorses of violin recital tradition. Both performers found their approach to establishing the unique rhetorical stance of each of the three movements while bringing them together as an integrated statement in which virtuosity is shared in equal measure between violin and piano.

This was the sort of recital that reminds serious concert-goers of just how rewarding the act of listening can be; and it left me wondering just what new feats of inventiveness will go into the next program that Ibragimova and Tiberghien prepare.

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