Walton and Elgar at Wisconsin Lutheran
Monday evening, violinst Frank Almond and pianist Orion Weiss made a strong case for William Walton’s rarely performed Sonata for Violin and Piano.
This work, peculiar and challenging in every way, has a little shake of four 16th notes at the start. It sounds like an ornament of some kind, but it turns out to be the most important element of the entire first movement, more important than the sustained initial melody of which it is a part. Walton goes on for maybe twelve minutes, turning out endless versions of this insinuating little figure. The weird thing is, no matter the intervals — seconds, minor thirds, or bigger intervals expanded to six notes, it always maintains its identity. In all versions, it pops out of the busy textures like a flashbulb going off.
Weiss and Almond had something to do with that. They played this figure with special rhythmic verve in each iteration, with the happy result of coherence built around this nugget of music. On first hearing, at least, it was impossible to grasp anything like first theme, second theme, development and recap. But you could feel the organic probing of this germinal little figure, wiggling relentlessly on its evolutionary way from start to finish.
The second movement is a set of variations on a theme so bizarre that it affords no sense of a tonal center. It’s hard to grasp and hold in the mind and thus compare to the variations in the usual way of listening. Hearing this music was like walking through a strange, alien landscape. It’s all fascinating and new, unfathomable, but you can feel that it’s all related, even if you can’t say exactly how.
This free-floating, irregular music puts a lot of burden on the players. Nothing about the phrasing is obvious; every other bar seemed to have an accelerando or ritardando. This was the first time with Walton’s sonata for both players, but they never got caught feeling their way through the music looking for the impulse. They decided on everything, agreed on everything, and played everything with authority.
Almond stayed British in both halves of this Frankly Music program, given at Schwan Concert Hall at Wisconsin Lutheran College. Violinist Ilana Setapen, violist Cynthia Phelps and cellist Robert deMain joined Almond and Weiss in Edward Elgar’s Quintet in A minor for Piano and String Quartet.
Elgar’s music is more straightforward than Walton’s in both its forms and its sentiments. All three movements are variants of sonata form. The material refers to marches, dances, hymns and operatic song. The harmonies drive the music through time in the conventional way. The sum of it is a roiling play of elevated Romantic sentiments, from ardent love to reverence to heroism. My favorite bit is second theme of the first movement, a dreamy Spanish dance that turns fiery. Very seductive.
The players just got together for this program, but you’d think they worked together all the time, so clean was their ensemble and intonation and so unanimous their feel for the weight and direction of the phrase. They felt the big contours together, too, and focused the entire work on the last moments, when they took it over the top.
This marked the end of Frankly Music’s regular season, but Almond has extended it with an extra concert. On May 21, Almond and accordionist Stas Venglevski will give an updated version of the tango program they played in February of 2011. This extra concert will take place at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center. Details here.
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