The ZOFO Duet of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman has been a frequent visitor to the Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) series of recitals given on Tuesdays at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. They returned today to give a performance of the oldest and newest compositions in their current working repertoire. The program began with Franz Schubert’s D. 940 fantasie in F minor, followed by Gabriela Lena Frank’s first in a projected series of compositions entitled “Sonata Serrana,” one of five pieces to receive its world premiere in an Old First Concerts recital at the end of January.
When I wrote about that Old First Concerts recital, I observed that five new compositions over the course of two hours tended to stretch what the “all-too-human” mind could accommodate. It was as if the five works were all competing for attention. Dwelling on any one of them meant neglecting the others.
I thus welcomed the opportunity to listen to Frank’s new sonata as a follow up to the Schubert fantasie that I know well from both listening and performing experiences. In this new context I am happy to report that the sonata held up very well. In the first place it really is a sonata, consisting of four movements that follow a sonata structure that can be traced back to the Classical period. However, any resemblance of Frank’s sonata to a Beethoven piano sonata would be ironically coincidental. Frank’s mind may be perfectly comfortable with early nineteenth-century traditions; but in this particular sonata her heart is situated firmly in the Andean traditions of her mother. Indeed, “serrana” is the feminine form of the Spanish adjective for “pertaining to the mountains,” which means it is the form in which it would define an attribute of Frank’s mother.
Frank then uses the four movements of traditional classical form to examine the Andes from different points of view. The opening Allegro is in sunlight, while the following Scherzo is at night. This is not the quiet nocturnal music that we find, for example, in the second movement of Claude Debussy’s Ibéria. It is a night of lively dancing, singing, and probably also hawking from the stalls of a night market. Quiet comes only with the evocation of dusk by the Adagio, which is followed (and here there is a parallel with Debussy) with the celebration of a holy festival in a movement entitled “Karnavalito.”
With the Adagio providing the only “breathing space,” this is a composition of driving and exuberant rhythms. Performance cannot avoid being a bit of an endurance test. However, the ZOFO Duet is no stranger to high-energy compositions; and they had no trouble managing their own energy levels to accommodate the demands of this dazzling score. Their thoroughly engaging interpretation will likely establish this as a composition that will get frequent performance, perhaps even drawing upon individual movements for encores.
Energy management is also critical to interpreting D. 940 effectively. Structurally this would not be mistaken for a sonata, even though it is in four sections. Each of the sections tends to follow conventional ternary form; but the Largo is basically a “dramatic recitative” that intervenes between the bipolar mood shifts of both the opening Allegro molto moderato and the Scherzo of the third section. The Finale then begins as a recapitulation of that Allegro molto moderato but then launches into an elaborate fugue that unfolds with increasing energy before one last statement of the opening theme.
This was my first opportunity to listen to ZOFO perform D. 940. I was particularly struck by their attentiveness to the ways in which large-scale and small-scale structures interact. Equally significant was their management of those frequent abrupt mood shifts, making this a composition that never allows the listener the benefit of falling back on comfortable expectations (even the listener who has heard the composition many times in the past). In other words this was a performance that applied its command of the technical requirements to capture all the idiosyncrasies of the music’s spirit. What more can one ask from a Schubert performance?