Musical Dissonance, Cognitive Strain
Ruth Palmer and Gabriela Montero, Tri-I Noon Recitals, ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY, DEC. 7TH
After brash beginnings as a precocious student, Sergei Prokofiev left Russia shortly after the revolution for America. Bad timing and too-ambitious projects there forced him to depart, luckless, for Paris, where he fared better. He moved back to Russia in 1936 and remained there until he died, the same day as Josef Stalin. I mention this in the context of attempting to understand the performance of one of Prokofiev’s more dour compositions (if such characterization isn’t redundant) by the entirely pleasant violinist Ruth Palmer and pianist Gabriela Montero—who performed at President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration fête—in the Tri-I Noon Recital Series at Rockefeller University’s geodesic Caspary Auditorium.
Prokofiev’s c. 1938–46 Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80, started innocently enough, commencing with good old 20th century dissonant bleakness—just the ticket for audience members nostalgic for boiled rutabaga on caterwauling dead-of-winter nights in the gulag. Despite Palmer’s feigned distrait, adept performance of slithering fingerboard runs and inharmonic push-pull pizzicatos, and Party officials’ claim that Prokofiev’s music was proscriptively “formal” (rather than, say, melodic/narrative—the musical equivalent of Abstract Expressionism), Sonata No. 1 was a transparent attack on totalitarianism, with the insult of insanity thrown in for good measure. Indeed, Prokofiev was reputed to have instructed the premiere pianist to play too loudly so the audience would ask, “Is he out of his mind?” As the second movement—Allegro brusco (as in “harsh”)—got under way, one found oneself nostalgic for anything but this straight-up-unpleasant music. After the first and second movements a listener might understandably conclude that she or he had developed amusia—the condition of hearing music as debilitating noise—a sentiment Prokofiev had provoked about a hundred years ago, eliciting complaints that, “The cats on the roof make better music!” D’accord.
The third movement offered, at last, lyrical respite: clear, melodic, and meditative. Montero’s pianissimo piano at last showcased Palmer’s playing, although the fantasy of the metronomic keyboard maîtresse and the deranged Ophelian sawyer did come to mind. In the fourth movement, the discordant motif of the first recurred and was refined as time stood still, and another fantasy intruded: that of Palmer playing the lied in loop, the clock forever stuck between six and seven.
The audience was next treated to the world premiere of “A Piece for Ruth,” a single-movement composition by Montero dedicated to Palmer. Montero prefaced the performance by saying that this piece might’ve been written “for a bird”: Palmer being English, granted. “A Piece for Ruth” enabled the audience to “get to know” Palmer and Montero as not being who they might appear, concluding that either or both are intense, frenetic, and darkly impassioned. The piano hammered, and Palmer, after metaphorically singing a surreal modish song on her violin, split her cage with a winging bowpoint flourish.
César Franck’s acclaimed 1886 Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major was an ambitious, if appropriate, closing: ambitious for famously having been played by major musicians (including Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein), and appropriate because of Montero’s improvisational bent. The first movement began almost as background music; the second, abruptly frantic—histrionic, even—begging the question of why the sturm und drang, already, and suggesting itself as a precursor to Prokofiev. In the third movement, Ben moderato: Recitative-Fantasia, a predictable change-up, Palmer and Montero were mesmerizing, no doubt incorporating Montero’s expert improvisational affinities. The last movement was surely a delight to Franck aficionados: a dux and comes—leader and attendant—canonical segment in which the piano was answered by the violin a half-measure back. Montero was afforded the opportunity to cross hands over and under, and the finale was confidently heroic.
While Prokofiev and Franck were of a set, they were a tad too close, unless the intention was to imply inspiration/derivation. And reverse chronology in such a case was risky—and odd. Meanwhile, playing the piano too forte might’ve been mandated for Prokofiev, but it unbalanced Franck. A recurring quibble: Caspary’s acoustics require that the Steinway be short-standed (horrors!), or the violin sensitively microphoned (double horrors!).
When Prokofiev died, the first (discordant) and third (lyrical) movements of Sonata No. 1 were played at his funeral—by the legendary David Oistrakh, no less. Perhaps had I been in the mood and properly attired for such obsequies I might have attended; as it was, the most dissonant aspect of the concert was that it was played by living humans. Even the combined impacts of Montero’s fresh admiration, Franck’s closing masterwork, and the musicians’ dedicated performances were unable to overcome the pall cast by the lugubrious Slav.