Pianist Mack McCray, who has been a member of the faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) since 1971, is a regular visitor to the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. Last night, in a departure from his usual performance of solo recitals, he returned to Old First with two of his SFCM colleagues, adding them one at a time, sort of reversing the logic of the final movement of Joseph Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony. McCray began the program with three short pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, after which he was joined by violinist Bettina Mussumeli for that composer’s K. 379 sonata in G major. Cellist Bonnie Hampton then joined this duo to conclude the program with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 97 (“Archduke”) trio in B-flat major.
The evening also had an integrating theme, McCray began with the K. 398 set of six variations on the somewhat eccentric aria “Salve, tu Domine” from Giovanni Paisiello’s opera I filosofi immaginarii (the imaginary philosophers). This opening selection was then complemented by the final movement of the K. 379 sonata, another set of six variations, this time on an original theme. Finally, the third movement of Beethoven’s Opus 97 marked one of Beethoven’s first extended ventures into the variations form that had more to do with sophisticated experiments in prolongation than with merely elaborating a simple theme.
The result was a highly satisfying evening on all counts. McCray brought both wit and sensitive expressiveness to his solo Mozart. It was clear that Mozart was responding to the comic oddities of Paisiello’s aria with a healthy share of oddities of his own. Similar playfulness could be found in McCray’s account of the K. 485 rondo in D major, which developed its own rhetoric of twitting convention. The final selection, the K. 540 B minor Adagio movement, was more a matter of venturing into daring harmonic progressions and then seeking out a suitable path to return to the tonic.
The K. 379 sonata had its own elements of daring as well. The rolling arpeggios played by the piano in the opening measure take a rhetorical stance of considerable distance from conventional eighteenth-century rhetoric and almost risk upstaging the violin’s triple-stop entry. However, the real eye-opener comes when the 49 measures of Adagio introduction in G major then give way to an Allegro section in G minor. It has often been observed Mozart was at his most adventurous when composing in minor keys, and this sonata movement is no exception to that rule. The result was a major rethinking of the nature of the sonata by Mozart at his most mature, given a powerfully dramatic account through the interpretation devised jointly by McCray and Mussumeli.
A similar sense of drama unfolding through a process of seeking out new logic and rhetoric for a traditional form emerged when Hampton joined these two musicians for the performance of Beethoven’s Opus 97 that concluded the evening. There is very much a comforting warmth in the ways in which violin, cello, and piano share and exchange thematic material in the opening Allegro moderato. This then gives way to a Scherzo that is distinguished in the Beethoven canon by the almost relaxed approach it takes to its playfulness. This surface-level casualness does not prepare the listener for the depths that will then be plumbed when Beethoven proceeds to explore variations on his Andante cantabile theme. Indeed, when properly executed (as it was last night), the theme itself emerges as one of those musical statements that seems to make time stand still. With time so frozen, the attentive listener can then follow all the twists and turns through which Beethoven elaborates and prolongs the “seed” for this movement, eventually giving into to simply following the trails Beethoven has blazed through this labyrinth of his own making. Following this most profound of adventures of the evening, Mussumeli, Hampton, and McCray could then ease the tension with a spritely account of the final movement, allowing our more conventional listening habits to kick back in and allow the good-natured conclusion to run its course.