Concert Review: At Rockport Music — Violinist Stefan Jackiw and Pianist Anna Polonsky

Violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Anna Polonsky created another Rockport Music evening to remember.

 performing in California in 2013. Photo: Fred Hall

Violinist Stefan Jackiw and Pianist Anna Polonsky performing in California in 2013. Photo: Fred Hall

By Susan Miron

Line-ups for music festival opening weekends don’t get any better than Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s, which began Friday night with the Emerson Quartet and ended Sunday with a recital by Emerson’s longtime cellist, David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. In between, on Saturday night, there was the duo of violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Anna Polonsky.

The breathtaking Shalin Liu Performance Center was a perfect place to hear these extraordinary young artists. The sun was setting as they began to play, and the space’s acoustics served the musician’s instruments beautifully. Polonsky made use of an ambitious spectrum of dynamics, as did Jackiw. It was yet another Rockport evening to remember.

The duo opened their program with the Mozart’s Sonata in B-Flat Major for Violin and Piano, K. 378, which was written between 1779-1781. The three-movement sonata was a perfect showcase for each instrument, both of which Mozart himself played well. The first thing that hit me in this piece was the tremendous beauty of Polonsky’s piano playing. Rockport Music featured a large picture of photogenic budding superstar Stefan Jackiw on the cover of its summer season program, but the two artists play together often, and Polonsky is a most impressive performer.

Mozart’s violin and piano sonatas fall into three categories: the very early sonatas and the six “new” sonatas for violin and clavier, published by Artaria as Opus 2 and often performed as flute and piano sonatas; about a dozen middle sonatas (all around the K. 300s) which are generally lyrical but include the very dramatic E Minor Sonata; and the 3 late large-scale sonatas (K. late 400s).

The B-Flat sonata’s second movement is lovely, especially its middle section with its numerous double stops in the violin. A number of passages in the first and third movement require serious virtuosity, and Jackiw played them with beauty and ease. Because he was interested in choosing challenging dynamics, Jackiw at times misjudged – the piano cannot play nearly as quietly as the violin. As a result, the violin was soft to the point of being almost inaudible.


Composer Witold Lutoslawski

Witold Lutoslawski’s (1913-1994) Partita for Violin and Piano received a spectacular performance. As seems to be the unfortunate current custom, Jackiw commented on the piece the stage, calling it a “searing apocolyptic meditation.” Well, yes, but an audience senses this without being told (the program notes were quite informative and thorough). Chatter aside, Jackiw and Polonsky gave a sensational performance of this five movement work, which moves from the demonic to the disturbed and the angelic. It often felt as if you were listening in at a violin’s nervous breakdown, accompanied by intense screams of what sounds like pain and anguish. This often nightmarish music has an interesting history.

Originally, Lutoslawski composed this piece as a 1984 commission from The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The latter’s music director, Pinchas Zuckerman, intended it to be a double concerto for himself and pianist Marc Neikrug. Instead, Lutoslawski ended up completing a duet, which soon became a major contribution to the repertoire. The violin gets plenty of chances to show off with bent pitches, variations in vibrato, glissandi, and the usual virtuosic bag of tricks. The Partita was recomposed as a piece for violin and orchestra for Anne-Sophie Mutter, who was performing another of the composer’s works, “Chain 2: Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra.” The commission came from the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, who proceeded to ask Lutoslawski to write a composition that would link the two works. The now tri-partite work – Chain 2, Interlude and Partita – is a powerful addition to the violin concerto repertoire.

The now-dark window behind the stage was covered by a lovely screen during intermission, apparently to enhance the acoustics. When the second half began, all the lights in the hall were darkened except those on the violin stand. What followed was unforgettable – Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s (b. 1952) “Nocturne (to the Memory of Witold Lutoslawski)”, which was written immediately after Sarriaho heard that her mentor had died in 1994. Saariaho had been in the midst of composing a violin concerto for Gidon Kremer, and used the musical fragments from that concerto to express her mourning. The piece was premiered in Helsinki a mere nine days after Lutoslawski’s death. With his balletic movements reflected eerily on the screen behind him, Jackiw gave a searing performance of this deeply saddening piece.

The lights were suddenly turned on and the duo immediately segued to Brahms’s dramatic Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano (composed 1878-88). Polonsky played sensitively and exquisitely once again. The third movement (of four) was, to my ears, the highlight of the piece, perhaps because it is most attuned to Jackiw’s approach.

Five days after the concert, what remains most memorable are Polonsky’s gorgeous piano playing and Jackiw’s extraordinary technical mastery, his large dynamic range, and wide variety of tone colors. The violinist left a lasting impression, particularly in the piece written by Lutoslawski and the composition that so movingly eulogized the composer.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and plays the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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