By Ted AYALA
A little old Russian lady and her husband happened to share the elevator with me after last Sunday’s Le Salon de Musiques program of cello and piano works by Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff. With the impression of cellist John Walz and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert still fresh in my ears, I was trying to gather my thoughts about the recital when her small, but sharp voice bristling with maligned dignity burst into my thoughts.
Her feathers clearly ruffled by the music, she complained to her husband: “Why Stravinsky? I never liked him. Too modern, too crazy, too much sarcasm!” she exclaimed.
At first I was inclined to ask myself whether she had even heard the recital that she seemed so relieved to be putting behind her.
Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff indeed seem on paper as unlikely a combination as nuts and gum. No doubt they shared some things in common. They both had fled Russia in the wake of the October Revolution. They both agonized over the royalties and fees owed to them from performances of their music. (No small detail that since they were both citizens of an Imperial Russia that had never been a signatory of the Berne Convention, a problem which was exacerbated by the USSR remaining in the wilderness of international copyright laws well into the 1960s.) But their art represents – as much in our time as in theirs – the antipodal forces that tore (and continue to tear) at modern music: One side marching forward while the other keeps its feet firmly planted in the past.
Or is it really that simple?
A remarkable aspect of Walz’s and Vanhauwaert’s vision of Stravinsky is how very much they seem to see Stravinsky integrated into the tradition he often kicked against in his own lifetime.
Walz lent his performance of the “Suite Italienne” a honeyed mellowness and aristocratic bearing wholly at odds with the composer’s enduring reputation as a wild-eyed enfant terrible. Perhaps not so unusual given that the work is an arrangement of his ballet “Pulcinella,” which makes the work in effect an arrangement of an arrangement. Though again things aren’t quite what they seem.
Using as his basis a number of keyboard and vocal works from the late Italian Baroque, Stravinsky contrived no simple orchestral garb for them in his ballet, but rather hollowed them out and subverted both and the notion of “tradition,” which in this work he giddily encases in ironic quotes.
Yet that subversion of tradition has since become part of the same, with Stravinsky’s ironic quotes now faded away into statements of utter sincerity.
There was something delightful, even faintly dangerous in Walz’s and Vanhauwaert’s quiet turning of the tables on the composer.
And they didn’t stop with Stravinsky.
Because if their Stravinsky was one now part of the textbook tradition and all it stands for, their performances of Rachmaninoff’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano” and “Vocalise” were not quite business as usual.
All the notes were there, nothing was changed. But their tight emotional restraint, spiky phrasing, cool (though never cold) elegance were clearly not the heart-on-sleeve, expressively super-charged Rachmaninoff variety. They were, to put it succinctly, a Stravinskian take on this arch-Romatic composer.
The pairing of these composers seemed at first a kind of blockbuster pairing of musical giants. But the program as played by Walz and Vanhauwaert was one of the most surprising and revelatory of the season. A success in every sense of the word for the performances and the thoughtful (and in this case subtly provocative) musical curating by Le Salon de Musiques’ artistic director François Chouchan.
Great music, they prove, still has the power to move and shock. And not just little old ladies.