Two Local Artists in Recita: Harpsichord and Piano
By Melinda Bargreen
From the pianist Robin McCabe, you always expect some pretty spectacular playing. McCabe, the longtime former director of the School of Music at the University of Washington, has described her playing style as “kinetic,” and she has always been the sort of pianist who can toss off the challenging Liszt pieces with the big boys.
In her Jan. 24 recital last month in Meany Theater, the Liszt technique was very much in evidence – but so was a prevailing musical intelligence that feels like the wisdom accumulated over years of music-making. One of the most significant portions of that recital was her performance of Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” a set of eight interlinked pieces full of tumult and self-contradiction. McCabe took to the microphone to introduce this cycle to the audience, giving an eloquent defense of the music of “the singular journey we are going on together.” Turbulent, contrarian, full of internal conflicts, the “Kreisleriana” is based on a novel by E.T.A. Hoffman – and it reflects the internal demons that battled within the composer, who descended into mental illness and died in an asylum.
McCabe delineated the various sections, stormy and serenely lyrical, with expert care. The latter pieces of the cycle, hinting at the composer’s love for his wife Clara, featured some virtuoso pedaling – sometimes slightly blurring the outlines of the music, as if in a mist. And once, when the final quiet chord was released by the sustaining pedal, McCabe’s hands held down the keys of that chord in a ghostly echo that lingered on and on.
The program began with a large-scale, magisterial account of the Bach/Busoni Chaconne in D Minor. Liszt got the last word, through his herculean “Sonetto del Petrarca 104” (a work often played by McCabe’s mentor, Bela Siki), and some Liszt transcriptions (including the killer “Concert Paraphrase on the Quartet from ‘Rigoletto’”). The encore was McCabe’s elegantly-played, tactful “lights-out” signal, in Debussy’s nostalgic “La valse plus que lente.” Lovely.
A few nights later, a very different kind of virtuosity came to the Town Hall stage, with a duo recital by the two co-founders of Seattle Baroque Orchestra: harpsichordist Byron Schenkman and violinist Ingrid Matthews.
It has been 18 years – how can this be possible? – since the two players arrived in Seattle to establish the Seattle Baroque Orchestra. With their imaginative programming and highly distinctive performance style, Schenkman and Matthews immediately became popular figures in Seattle’s music scene, proving that there was nothing sedate or bookish about the music played in period style and on period instruments.
The intervening years certainly have not diminished their animated involvement in the music, or the interpretive fire with which they tackled this “Common Ground” program of pre-1704 works for violin and harpsichord. Matthews and Schenkman have developed an utterly seamless ensemble in which each player seems to know exactly what the other is thinking, and their every move is truly “in tune” with the partner.
The program offered “theme and variations” pieces from composers Bull, Biber, Muffat, Schmelzer, Kerll, Schop, and Baltzar: not exactly mainstream music for most listeners. This must have made the thrill of discovery even more potent for many in the audience, especially when the music was delivered up with the blazing virtuosity of Matthews’ baroque violin and Schenkman’s dainty little 17th-century Italian harpsichord (courtesy of Naomi Shiff). The sounds produced by this duo were anything but dainty: feisty might be a more accurate term.
The whole program had an improvisatory feel, as if the elaborate cadenza-like writing of the variations had occurred to both players on the spot. That impression was enhanced by the fact that the entire complicated program was memorized. Matthews’ expressive and accurate violin was particularly effective in the beautifully shaded Schmelzer Sonata II. Schenkman’s interpretive depth was remarkable in the introspective, deeply considered reading of Kerll’s Toccata I and Passacaglia.
This was indeed a duo recital of rare quality – and one that showed the near-infinite variety that inventive composers can create within the framework of “theme and variations.”