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Solenn Séguillon presents Beethoven in a modernist setting at Old First Concerts

Violinist Solenn Séguillon
Violinist Solenn Séguillon
courtesy of Old First Concerts

The major work on the program violinist Solenn Séguillon prepared for her Old First Concerts recital last night (and the only work following the intermission) was Ludwig van Beethoven’s best known violin sonata, Opus 47 (“Kreutzer”) in A major. However, the context for Beethoven was decidedly modernist and included a world premiere for unaccompanied violin. Séguillon took an innovative approach in establishing this context, which was well served by her accompanist, pianist Anne Rainwater, who has devoted much of her own repertoire to new music.

Like most of Beethoven’s chamber music for violin and piano, Opus 47 is a relatively early work. It was completed in 1803, the same year in which he composed his Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major (the third). However, just as Opus 55 has come to be known as a “revolutionary” symphony, Opus 47 has its own ways of being iconoclastic, many of which are most evident in the first movement. While Beethoven was known for elevating the piano beyond the role of an accompanying instrument in his duo sonatas, Opus 47 reframes the roles of both instruments in a setting of interruption and interjection, a conversation that always seems to be on the brink of confrontation, so to speak.

Thus, what mattered most about last night’s reading by Séguillon and Rainwater was that neither was afraid to approach this music with boldly assertive rhetoric. This created an edge-of-your-seat suspense, even if the listener was already comfortably familiar with the fragmentary approach Beethoven took to unfold his thematic material. The only real challenge was that, when given such acutely dramatic attention, this movement is a tough act to follow.

In this case the second movement (Andante con Variazioni) emerged as a bit of a letdown. This was evident from Rainwater leading with a bit more affettuoso than Beethoven probably wanted. (If he had wanted it, he would have put it in the tempo marking.) More problematic, however, were the pauses between the variations. This may sound like a minor point; but Beethoven’s variations compositions are, for the most part, distinguished by a clear sense of overall architecture within which the variations tend to flow one into the next. Neither the score itself nor the thematic relations give any indication that, for this particular set, Beethoven wanted that flow to be disrupted. Nevertheless, last night’s approach was a relatively minor shortcoming that passed with the arrival of the concluding Presto, churning away at its energetic pace with only a few minor interruptions to recall the tensions of the opening movement.

The world premiere in the first half of the program was an elegy by Shahab Paranj. Séguillon was familiar with Paranj’s work through her performances with the Aleron Trio (with cellist Anne Suda and pianist Sophie Xuefei Zhang), which premiered his first piano trio, “A Bitter Letter.” Like the trio this new piece used traditional classical Persian music as a point of departure. However, if tradition provided the structural framework, the rhetoric involved a seamless synthesis of traditional intervallic sonorities with contemporary string technique. (Paranj understands the string family through his own cello studies with Jennifer Culp at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.) The result was a brief but engaging venture into a domain remote in both space and time but viewed under the new “lighting” of contemporary music-making practices.

That last sentence might also be applied to the violin/piano version of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” which began the concert. Like Paranj’s music, Pärt’s tends to evoke traditions of the past resonating into the present. “Fratres” is less concerned with thematic content than with the foundation of an underlying chord progression. While that progression was of the composer’s own invention, the result is a bit like a latter-day approach to past inventions based on that traditional Spanish chord progression known as the “Folia.” Also reflecting the Baroque and pre-Baroque traditions, Pärt conceived a violin part for those inventions that is highly challenging in its virtuosity. Séguillon met those challenges head-on, establishing an intensely stirring rhetoric that foreshadowed the tensions of confrontation that would later emerge in Beethoven’s Opus 47.

Pärt and Paranj were separated by an 1830 nocturne in C-sharp minor by Frédéric Chopin, not published until after his death. What may have been a “nineteenth-century intrusion,” however, actually had a twentieth-century twist, since Séguillon and Rainwater performed a transcription of this nocturne by Nathan Milstein for violin and piano. While one had no trouble recognizing Chopin’s themes, Milstein was particularly inventive in translating Chopin’s ornately pianistic gestures into a “parallel language” based on virtuoso violin technique. Milstein was too much of a traditionalist for this to be called a truly “modernist” selection; but his approach to transcription definitely moved beyond the more “salon-based” techniques of the nineteenth century. Séguillon clearly appreciated that this music was “advanced” in its own right; and her performance firmly warranted that point of view.

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