This afternoon the second program in the annual French Music Festival presented by Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral presented sonatas by two twentieth-century French composers performed by two Russians, violinist Mariya Borozina and pianist Irina Behrendt. The program began with the second violin sonata composed by Francis Poulenc, followed by Maurice Ravel’s second such sonata in G major. This was the reverse chronological order, but it might be appropriate to discuss these pieces in their proper chronology.
Ravel’s sonata was his last chamber music composition. It was very popular in my student days, primarily because the second movement began with the tempo marking “Blues.” Ravel completed this sonata in 1927, the year before he first met George Gershwin; but it is clear that he had cultivated an ear for the jazz that was being played in Paris after the end of the First World War. Through this movement the attentive listener can recognize that Ravel was sensitive to the role of glissando in singing or playing the blues. Indeed, he may have been more aware of the significance of glissando than Gershwin was (or, perhaps, more accurately, than Paul Whiteman’s sterilizations of jazz allowed Gershwin to be). This movement also reflects some of the jazzier moments in the cup-and-saucer duet from Ravel’s one-act opera “L’enfant et les sortileges” (the child and the spells).
Taken as a whole, however, this is a sonata in which each movement has its own distinctive rhetoric. The opening movement works with relatively fragmented motifs but weaves them into thick textures. The final movement, on the other hand, is a wild “Perpetuum mobile” with a strong emphasis on virtuoso technique for both violin and piano. As a result, the whole sonata is almost a collection of three independent pieces. However, Borozina and Behrendt performed it with a sensitive logic through which one could easily appreciate how those separate pieces had been gathered into a meaningful sequence.
A bit less satisfying was their approach to Poulenc. In this case the central movement is a “calm” (part of the tempo description) Intermezzo, preceded by “Allegro con fuoco” and followed by “Presto tragico.” This might seem like an instance of that rose-between-two-thorns cliché, except that, when one actually considers the thematic material in both the violin and its accompaniment, there is very little “fuoco” in the first movement and even less “tragico” in the third. The fact is that Poulenc composed this sonata during the Second World War, and it may have been an example of his supporting the French Resistance by writing music that would subtly thumb its nose at German traditions. Thus, in looking at the tempo markings, one might expect Robert Schumann; but what one actually gets is the Follies Bergère.
Unfortunately, neither Borozina nor Behrendt seemed willing to acknowledge the potential for humor in this sonata. Their reading was definitely attentive to the letter of the score, so to speak; but the spirit of Poulenc’s Gallic blend of charm and provocation was missing. This was also the case in their selection for an encore, the “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” movement from Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite, presumably in the arrangement by Jascha Heifetz, which lacked the play of a childlike imagination. Nevertheless, the Ravel performance was definitely worth the listen.