Sebastian Bohren & Claire Huangci
Mozart / Beethoven / Cage / Tchaikovsky / Ravel

Reformierte Kirche, Hinwil ZH, 2021-07-23

4.5-star rating

2021-08-03 — Original posting



Table of Contents


Sebastian Bohren & Claire Huangci @ Hinwil, 2021-07-23 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Sebastian Bohren & Claire Huangci — Hinwil, 2021-07-23 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeReformierte Kirche, Hinwil ZH, 2021-07-23 19:30h
Series / TitleAufbruch (Departure, Start)
OrganizerTop Klassik Zürcher Oberland
Reviews from related eventsReviews from concerts organized by Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland;
Media review and 7 concert reviews featuring Sebastian Bohren;
13 (!) concert reviews featuring Claire Huangci

For Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland, the Reformed Church in Hinwil is one of the regular concert locations. It’s a nice venue, built in classicist style, with rococo decor. In its architecture, it follows a model invented / introduced by Hans Ulrich Grubenmann (1709 – 1783) in the late 18th century. Grubenmann was a bridge builder and architect. He used bridge-building concepts to construct a suspended ceiling without pillars that could cover large halls. The result is an open design with a simple, transverse rectangular hall and large, steep balconies in the rear, as well as on either side of the nave. That concept was taken up for a large number of churches in the area, such as the one in Hinwil.


The Artists

Neither the Swiss violinist Sebastian Bohren (*1987, see also Wikipedia), nor the American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia) require an introduction in my blog. Both have been featured in numerous reviews. See the links above.


Program

Sebastian Bohren put together a broadly varied program, from early classics to a mid-20th century piece by one of the most prominent American composers of the time:


Setting, etc.

The concert title “Aufbruch” refers to the re-opening of the concert activities after the last 18 months of the pandemic. People were obviously starving for music: the organizer gathered a large audience that adequately filled the nave’s ground seating. The balconies remained empty. They had been equipped with glass shields on the balustrades, possibly because of the pandemic. I took a seat in the rear-most row, to the right of the middle section.

Between the compositions, Sebastian Bohren took the microphone to introduce the audience to the works.


Concert & Review

As in recent concerts, Sebastian Bohren was playing on the 1761 violin “Ex-Wannamaker Hart” by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786). He is using a modern Tourte-type bow. Claire Huangci’s instrument was a Steinway D-274 concert grand, with the lid fully open.

Mozart: Sonata No.18 for Piano and Violin in G major, K.301

Almost throughout his life as composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) violin sonatas were central to his oeuvre (along with piano sonatas, string quartets, piano concertos and symphonies). The Koechel catalogue lists 36 works in that genre, including 16 childhood sonatas. After these, Mozart composed 20 “mature violin sonatas”. Four of those remained fragmentary works. There are six sonatas which the composer published as his op.1, his first “official” works. The “Sonatas for Piano and Violin” in op.1 are

  • No.18 in G major, K.301 (293a)
  • No.19 in E♭ major, K.302 (293b)
  • No.20 in C major, K.303 (293c)
  • No.21 in E minor, K.304 (300c)
  • No.22 in A major, K.305 (293d)
  • No.23 in D major, K.306 (300l)

The Koechel numbers in parentheses indicate the corrected chronology, relative to the original Koechel catalogue. They follow the time of completion. The sonatas No.18 – 20, and 22 were composed 1778 in Mannheim. Sonatas No.21 and 23, on the other hand, were written in Paris, in the same year. With the exception of No.23, all of the above sonatas still feature two movements only.

Mozart started writing the Sonata No.18 as a piece for piano and transverse flute. The published version for piano and violin has the following tempo annotations:

  1. Allegro con spirito
  2. Allegro

The Performance

I. Allegro con spirito

A harmless opening! Sebastian Bohren’s gentle, mellow articulation seemed to highlight the innocent character of this music. The soft start was an excellent “tool” to draw every listener’s attention to the performance. However, already these subtle p bars revealed the warmth in the tone of the Guadagnini violin. The beginning is deceptive, however. The f interjection in bars 8 – 12 acted like a wake-up call.

Even though in the following segment, Claire Huangci mirrored the violin’s warm and mellow sound, it didn’t take long for the listeners to realize that work justifies the term “mature sonata”. My notes even show “grand sonata”. This isn’t reflecting on complexity, but on the composer’s mastership in proportions and melodic invention.

As a listener, one instantly felt “drawn in”, embedded in Mozart’s music. The beautiful, well-projecting sound of Sebastian Bohren’s instrument and its ideal interaction with the acoustics contributed to this, as did Claire Huangci’s diligent dynamics. Initially, the piano’s open lid made me skeptical. However, throughout this sonata, I was delighted by the excellent dynamic balance, the transparency. This is the artists’ merit, but equally due to Mozart’s masterful writing.
★★★★

II. Allegro

The second movement starts with a simple folk tune, all natural, simple. Seemingly. Mozart of course did not stick to the simplicity of the beginning, and the artists showed careful, differentiated dynamics right from the first bars. Beautiful! The one quibble I had here was that I didn’t quite understand why after the repeat sign (bar 17), the tempo was a tad faster. Even more so, the suddenly faster tempo in the downward staccato in bars 29/30 (and later, equivalent instances) didn’t feel quite natural. The slower tempo in the G minor segment—a Trio of sorts—felt perfectly adequate.
★★★½


As Sebastian Bohren explained: the Mozart sonata was an ideal “warm-up piece” for a duo recital. Particularly for the dramatic masterwork that was to follow!

Beethoven: Sonata No.7 for Piano and Violin in C minor, op.30/2

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote 10 violin sonatas. Among these, the three sonatas in op.30 are samples of Beethoven’s mastership at the height of his middle period. The Sonata No.7 for Piano and Violin in C minor, op.30/2 from 1802 is dramatic and shows connections to other works in C minor, see below. I have written an extensive post comparing a series of recordings of that sonata. With that, I won’t write more on the composition. The annotations for the four movements are as follows:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Adagio cantabile
  3. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio
  4. Finale: Allegro — Presto

The Performance

I. Allegro con brio

The dramatic first movement showed both artists in their true element, music and performance were gripping from the first bars. This sonata unleashed the forces, particularly (and not surprisingly) at the piano. Beethoven’s busier, more virtuosic piano part occasionally tilted the balance towards piano dominance. However, the violin remained audible, not the least thanks to the excellent projecting qualities of the instrument. And Sebastian Bohren’s intonation was clean, firm, flawless, throughout the sonata.

Claire Huangci is an excellent chamber musician. She can draw from her almost unlimited technical reserves. Throughout the recital, she kept close contact with her duo partner, not just using peripheral vision, but frequently turning her head towards Sebastian Bohren. Expectedly, her agility was outstanding. As were her articulation, her dynamic control and differentiation (e.g., between bass and descant).

It was fascinating to follow the emotions in Beethoven’s music, from dramatic outbursts to menacing grumbling in the bass, on to playful, even serene, sometimes also melancholic moments.
★★★★+

II. Adagio cantabile

Here, it was Claire Huangci’s part to present the theme. Her playing was so calm, yet intense, and highly differentiated and diligent in the agogics and dynamics. Once the violin joined in, the two artists appeared to be breathing together. And those gentle, seamless, careful transitions—marvelous!

In bar 84, the piano moves into quaver triplets, and these triplets appear to retract. However, Beethoven—stroke of a genius—inserts two rapid ascending and ff C major scales in the piano. These struck me as direct anticipations of the opening of the solo part in the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, op.37. There, of course, they are in C minor—but still! That’s just one bar, then Beethoven returns to the serene atmosphere of the previous bars, as if nothing had happened.

The ff scales return after a few bars, this time joined by the violin. Two “erratic blocks” within such a serene, peaceful movement! Also the ending is all peace. Gentle, rolling demisemiquaver waves on the piano, the violin dreaming in subtle heights. And an ending in total harmony. So atmospheric, so touching!
★★★★★

III. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

In his initial comments, Sebastian Bohren called this short Scherzo an amuse-bouche, or a little refreshment prior to the drama of the final movement. I think it was far more than that: true fun, so agile in the sudden sforzandi, especially where Beethoven confuses the listener with “limping” hemioles. Then, there are these double-string e” triplets on the violin: deliberately piercing! That’s one of the few instances in (Vienna) classical music where modern metal strings have a clear advantage over gut strings.

The Trio is similar in character, though less provocative. The only (minor) quibble here was in Sebastian Bohren’s slightly “airy” bowing—or should I rather call the resulting tone slightly covered?
★★★★½

IV. Finale: Allegro — Presto

As in the opening movement, the piano again tended to dominate (bringing up thoughts about fortepianos!). However, the enthralling music, the attentive, alert and agile performance made balance concerns irrelevant. A dramatic, gripping composition (and performance), ending in a storming Presto that passed by like a whirlwind!
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

John Cage: Nocturne for Violin and Piano (1947)

John Cage (1988)
John Cage (1988)

The American John Cage (1912 – 1992, see also Wikipedia) was a prolific composer, but also an artist, music theorist, and philosopher. Wikipedia states that he was “a pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Critics have lauded him as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.

The Nocturne for Violin and Piano is a composition from 1947. The Website Johncage.org describes the composition as follows: “In this piece, Cage tries to soften the distinctions inherent between the two instruments used. Overall, the piece has an atmospheric character, like many other compositions from this period. It should be played with sustained resonances, and ‘sempre rubato’, giving the work a quirkily Romantic feel. The piano part employs mostly chordal arpeggios and tone clusters, the violin part mostly sustained tones.

The Performance

A highly atmospheric piece that is all sound magic! The violin is with mute throughout the piece: long, resting notes, occasional “curly” interjections. A piece mostly devoid of rhythm or persistent rhythmic structure. The piano part avoids “big resonances”, producing “glassy”, almost Aeolian sounds (even more so of course the violin!). A true Nocturne: all the mysteries of the night, the most subtle whistling, dreams, reflection, thoughts, peace, silence. Just four minutes, but a little miracle nevertheless. To me, a true highlight of the evening!

Rating: ★★★★★

Tchaikovsky: Souvenir d’un lieu cher, op.42

As Sebastian Bohren explained, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) composed his Souvenir d’un lieu cher, op.42 in 1878—actually in Switzerland. The work consists of three movements:

  1. Méditation: Andante molto cantabile
  2. Scherzo: Presto giocoso — Con molto espressione ed un poco agitato
  3. Mélodie: Moderato con moto

The first movement, Méditation, apparently was meant to become part of the composer’s Violin Concerto in D major, op.35, but ultimately did not fit in. So, the composer combined it with a short Scherzo and a Mélodie.

The Performance

I. Méditation: Andante molto cantabile

The piano introduction sets the tone: somewhat somber, sad, pondering, even resigned. The violin reinforces the melancholy, entering on the G and D strings, with wonderfully warm, full-bodied, deep sounds. Gradually, the music intensifies, builds up to a ff climax through ascending violin scales. More climaxes follow. I understood why Tchaikovsky deemed the piece too dramatic for a slow movement in his concerto.

I also felt that as a composition, the Méditation isn’t quite at the level of the concerto. But yes, it features really beautiful (too beautiful even?) melodies. And it allowed Sebastian Bohren to indulge in the breathtaking sonority of his instrument, particularly in the low register. At the same time, Claire Huangci clearly enjoyed the expressive playing on the Steinway. She made the listener feel the initial, orchestral designation of that piece.
★★★★

II. Scherzo: Presto giocoso — Con molto espressione ed un poco agitato

The Scherzo is a short movement between ghostly and fun, full of tension, if not suspense. The central Con molto espressione ed un poco agitato features a beautiful, intense and lyrical cantilena that ultimately leads back to a second Scherzo part.
★★★★½

III. Mélodie: Moderato con moto

True: a beautiful melody as main theme. It is melancholic, maybe almost too sweet, close to an earworm. What saves the piece from triviality is the highly expressive middle part. Here, Sebastian Bohren’s occasional portamenti felt perfectly adequate, appropriate.
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Ravel: Violin Sonata No.2 in G major

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) composed his Violin Sonata No.2 in G major between 1923 and 1927. At that time, the composer was fascinated and inspired by Jazz, St.Louis blues in particular.

  1. Allegretto (♩=76)
  2. Blues: Moderato (♩=108)
  3. Perpetuum mobile: Allegro (♩=152)

The Performance

I. Allegretto

Light, transparent music, so serene and playful! The piano part is intricate, often busy, even ghostly, with jazzy allusions. The right kind of music for Claire Huangci! However, she never tried playing herself into foreground. And once more I enjoyed Sebastian Bohren’s excellent intonation, the warm, well-projecting tone of his instrument. Between the jazzy moments, the music often feels “suspended”. The artists were excellent at keeping the tension, even suspense, throughout the movement. So typical Ravel—and so atmospheric!

I just felt that for this piece, a slightly drier acoustic environment might have been more adequate? Not for more clarity, but because it might better fit the spirit of the movement?
★★★★½

II. Blues: Moderato

The violin initially marks the regular 4/4 beat with triple-stop pizzicato. However, already in the second bar, accented syncopes add a jazzy flavor. And it’s the piano that reveals, and soon, the violin joins that tone with “dragging” glissandi and “bluesy” melancholy. I enjoyed how Sebastian Bohren often was “sneaking” into tones.

Claire Huangci’s touch, her control of dynamics and piano sonority were excellent. It was obvious that not just the composer, but also the two artists had fun with this music! It certainly was fun, music with drive and intensity. However, in my view, the artists avoided exaggerations, never let this turn into a caricature.
★★★★½

III. Perpetuum mobile: Allegro

A piece with a challenging violin part with rapid semiquavers throughout, highly motoric, ghastly. The piano part adds the jazz component, splashy, flashing chords and figures. Brilliant, fascinating—both the composition and the performance!
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Encore and Conclusion

To (hopefully!) everybody’s delight, the artists selected an encore that Sebastian Bohren had already pre-announced when they performed it the first time: John Cage’s Nocturne. The right music for the time of the day. It was excellent for calming down after the jazzy excitement in Ravel’s sonata. And a peaceful, atmospheric and reflective ending!


Author: Rolf Kyburz

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