Inserting the Brand-New Alongside the Old Familiar – New York Times
A John Harbison Sonata at Alice Tully Hall
REVIEW | 04. 27.12 | By Allan Kozinn | The New York Times
New-music fans who object when musical organizations present contemporary works in special concerts, where they won’t intrude on the classics — the New York Philharmonic’s Contact! series, or the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse concerts, for example — would have approved of the way the society presented John Harbison’s new Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano on Tuesday evening at Alice Tully Hall.
The work, which the society commissioned as part of a consortium, was given its world premiere at the concert by the violinist Cho-Liang Lin and the pianist Jon Kimura Parker, and it was surrounded by two staples of the Romantic canon: Beethoven’s Trio in E flat (Op. 1, No. 1), for which Mr. Lin and Mr. Parker were joined by the cellist Gary Hoffman, and Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor (Op. 60), with the violist Richard O’Neill filling out the ensemble.
Apart from the programmatic vote of confidence that surrounding Mr. Harbison with Beethoven and Brahms represents, having Mr. Lin and Mr. Parker perform in all three works afforded a measure of continuity that the society’s concerts do not always have, and in a way, that was a sign of confidence as well: a way of saying that the ensemble sees Mr. Harbison as part of a historical continuum.
Mr. Harbison’s sonata is substantial, if not especially groundbreaking, and though its language naturally sounds dissonant in this context, it is never much harsher than early Stravinsky. Indeed, Stravinsky appears to have been on Mr. Harbison’s mind: fleeting passages have both the acidity and rhythmic jaggedness of the fiddle writing in “L’Histoire du Soldat.”
But Mr. Harbison also takes a formal approach to structure, pacing and musical development that ties him to Beethoven and Brahms. His piece is in five distinct but connected movements, including a slow, lyrical aria as its heart and a closing rondo, to which Mr. Harbison appends a meditative postscript. And when Stravinsky’s influence is soft-pedaled, others shine through. Some of the piano writing, for instance, is bright, rollicking and jazzy, and both musicians are given opportunities to show off their strengths and flexibility.
Mr. Lin and Mr. Parker made a strong case for the score in an energetic, unified reading. Those qualities also enlivened the Beethoven and Brahms performances, which benefited as well from the supple characterization that familiarity can bring.
In the Beethoven Mr. Parker’s crisply focused pianism captured this early work’s playfulness and sparkle, just as the shifting balance of warmth and brightness in Mr. Lin’s and Mr. Hoffman’s tone caught the young Beethoven’s nods to courtly propriety and bursts of rebellious assertiveness.
In the Brahms the ensemble’s robust interplay countered the work’s gravitas without thoroughly dispelling it. The vigor with which Mr. Parker pounced on themes in the scherzo was especially striking. So was the ensemble’s decision to prize passion over drive in the finale.