San Francisco Performances concluded the 2011–2012 season of their Salons concerts yesterday evening at the Hotel Rex with a one-hour recital by the Albers sisters, Laura on violin and Julie on cello. They prepared a program that was unfamiliar to most, if not all, of the audience. However, they performed with so much confidence and enthusiasm that unfamiliarity was hardly an impediment.
The program began with the first of two duos that the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů wrote for violin and cello. Martinů was born in 1890 and began his career as a violinist in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, but he left Czechoslovakia in 1923 and moved to Paris. This is where he composed this two-movement (Preludium and Rondo) duo in 1927.
Laura Albers introduced the music by talking about its jazz and folk influences. She neglected to say anything about the composer’s sense of humor, which may be most evident in his ballet La Revue de Cuisine, a music-and-dance revue about pots (the heroine is the “saintly pot”), pans, and other kitchen artifacts, all scored for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, and piano. This score was composed in the same year as the duo; and, while the latter is not based on an outrageous narrative, it may well deserve the subtitle “The Cadenza that Ate the Rondo.”
Overall the duo unfolds at a comfortably perky pace, giving the listener a satisfying sense of being entertained. About halfway through the rondo, however, the cello launches into a cadenza of monumental virtuosity. It soon becomes clear that Martinů is ribbing the self-possessed virtuoso, who can’t seem to stop showing off his/her talents. After an extended solo far out of proportion to the rondo itself, the violin seizes a brief pause to launch into its own cadenza, only to be joined by the cello after a few phrases, leading into even more virtuosity in the form of a “double cadenza.” The return of the rondo theme after all of that display is thoroughly anticlimactic, which was clearly part of Martinů’s joke.
The Albers sisters had the good sense to give this a straight-faced performance. The action is in the music, and it is so blatant that any winks or nods from the performers would be superfluous. All of their energy went into doing justice to all the demands imposed by Martinů’s cadenza writing, and the rest of us could sit back and have a good chuckle over the fun that the composer was clearly having.
Martinů’s “expatriate” duo was complemented by the Opus 7 duo by his Hungarian contemporary Zoltán Kodály, composed in 1914. Kodály’s interest in folk sources was deeper than Martinů’s to the extent that he wrote a thesis on Hungarian folk song. This grew out of visits he made to remote villages in 1905 to capture folk performances on phonographic cylinders. (Béla Bartók would later join him as he continued these field studies, even after he had completed his thesis in 1906.)
As a result folk sources figure significantly in many of Kodály’s compositions, one of which is this duo. Nevertheless, this is a formally-structured three-movement work with its own intensely expressive voice. While the composer is probably better known for his solo cello sonata (Opus 8, composed the following year in 1915), Opus 7 is a thoroughly engaging composition; and it was given the compelling account it deserves by the Albers sisters.
Kodály would later go on to establish a reputation in music pedagogy, and his approach to music education has an international reputation. There was thus some logic in preceding his Opus 7 with a composition originally conceived for music-loving amateurs, rather than seasoned professionals. This was the Opus 39 set of eight duets for violin and cello by Reinhold Glière, published in 1909.
These short pieces probably offered the most suitable fare for the salon setting of yesterday evening’s recital, making a smooth transition from personal entertainment for which they were intended to a salon-style gathering. Each selection was brief but imaginative. I found it interesting that five of the movements followed forms that had been pursed by Frédéric Chopin: Prelude, Berceuse, Impromptu, Scherzo, and Etude. This is clearly retrospective music, but the Albers sisters gave it a loving account without playing up the nostalgia.