Composer Kaija Saariaho
Violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute (listen to her recital at the Freer Gallery of Art in 2004, and read Jens's review) may have played together before. The first time we heard them as a duo, in a concert last night at the Library of Congress, made it clear that, if they are not already, they should become regular collaborators. The revelation was made possible because of a last-minute substitution, as Jokubaviciute was filling in for indisposed pianist Benjamin Hochman, who happens to be Koh's husband. From the very start of Debussy's bittersweet violin sonata, the last piece the composer was able to complete before terminal cancer set in, the sound was set aside from the rest of the concert -- a dulcet, edge-free tone from Koh, supported by Jokubaviciute's evanescent touch on the lacy accompaniment figures in the keyboard part, with snippets of melody in the piano emerging seamlessly. The second movement abounded in playful energy, with a tender middle section and a gorgeous soft ending, unfortunately marred by thoughtless noise in the audience, and the finale, quite Romantic in its excesses, featured glowing low playing from Koh.
As explained by Susan Vita, the Chief of the institution's Music Division, the Library of Congress has been trying to secure a commission from Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, an Ionarts Favorite, for some time. This concert included two of her recent pieces, beginning with a new version of Aure, from 2011, for violin and piano. It is based on a melody from Henri Dutilleux's Shadows of Time, and in this version the two instruments trade fragments contrapuntally, amid clouds of harmonics and other intriguing effects (trills near the bridge, glissandi, among others). It was nicely paired with Ravel's sonata for the same, somewhat rare combination of instruments, from the 1920s, and the basic programming concept, to combine contemporary music with late, forward-sounding Ravel and Debussy made a salient connection.
Here, as throughout the program, intonation problems, leaning mostly toward flatness but also some imprecise attacks on high notes and harmonics, plagued the performance of the cellist, Anssi Karttunen. A longtime favorite collaborator of Saariaho's, Karttunen just had, for whatever reason, an off night, although with some strong moments in Debussy's other late masterpiece, the cello sonata, especially on that soaring melody that rises out of the texture a couple times in the last movement, the most memorable part of the piece.
The concert ended with local premiere of Saariaho's Light and Matter, first performed last year at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, a meditation on the effects of light for piano trio. Beginning on a rumble in the piano's bass register and on the cello's open C string, the piece builds toward and recedes from amassing of sound into static textures. Shrieks and howls from the strings were answered by the metallic strum of Jokubaviciute's hand directly on the piano's strings, a subtle, shivering sort of sound. Jokubaviciute sagely conducted the piece with the movements of her head and body, her nods occasionally wrongly interpreted by the page turner, requiring the pianist to turn back the page, all without missing anything perceptible. Keening sounds rose out of string bends in violin and cello, and the piano provided much of the driving force, harping on an oscillating figuration of octaves and fifths, until the sound slowly vanished.