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For The Record

New York
Merkin Concert Hall
04/10/2004 -  04/07/04
Franz Schubert: Rondo in B Minor
Francis Poulenc: Sonata
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 7

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (violin)
Anne-Marie McDermott (piano)

Some years ago a friend was performing in a Sunday afternoon concert featuring the Symphony # 3 of Mahler. Planning on attending, I suggested that we go to dinner afterwards. Although the idea sounded appealing, the musician had to decline because there was a two hour recording session scheduled for immediately after to patch up all of the rough spots for the “live” CD that was being created. I own that CD and it is surprisingly faithful to the actual rendition that so pleased us all that day, only a few bloopers and clunkers made over. However, sometimes there can be much more extensive plastic surgery, as landed Sir Simon Rattle in hot water in his first release with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The atmosphere at a recital that is being saved for posterity can be intimidating. Pierre-Laurent Aimard stumbled rather badly in his solo Carnegie debut, and there was little doubt for those of us in attendance that he was strangulated by the myriad of microphones and necessary cords that enveloped him like marionette strings. Just as cameras in the courtroom may cause the truth to be distorted (where is Marshall McLuhan when we really need him?), the cavernous maw of the ear of history can be daunting as well as insatiable. I have been to a number of recording sessions, both as a player and as an observer, and the one constant among them all is a preponderance of sweaty palms.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Anne-Marie McDermott are producing their first recording together and have decided to invite us all to the party. Performing identical programs on two different evenings of the same week will allow them to mix and match for improved quality and clarity, at least theoretically. Will the infernal apparatus tame the wild child violinist? Let’s hope not. I decided to come to both nights to observe the differences and similarities, the bumps, bruises and breaths of an individual mood versus the tyranny of the cookie cutter.

I. Wednesday

From the outset, these two performers let us know that this was not a concert in the usual sense. It was rather a working recording session, complete with the disembodied voice from the booth and the specter of numerous retakes. Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg involved the audience right from the start by explaining that our noise was a vital part of the process, coughs and applause necessary for the proper atmosphere, although cellular phones were strictly verboten. The pair even went so far as to have us redo one of our ovations after it was deemed not enthusiastic enough, their re-entrance as triumphant players especially energizing. Rather early on we realized that this entire experience would be theatrical in nature, a reality show version of a Broadway effort like “Master Class”. The conspiratorial role for the crowd truly whipped up the interest in the gestalt, allowing us to be never irritated when the reading would stop and start while snippets were revisited for crispness or coordination. The whole evening reminded of one of those Charlotte Moorman “happenings” from the psychedelic past, although without the nudity.

The performances were, not surprisingly, very good. These two partners (there is no sense whatsoever that Ms. McDermott is but an accompanist) have worked together long enough to really know each other’s moves and moods. Most impressive were the fits and starts in the rhythmically complex and somewhat loony Poulenc, maneuvers that were re-recorded perhaps excessively, even as the process was fascinating to observe. The Beethoven was such a strong effort that both artists and engineers allowed it to stand on its own (an actual “live” recording). For an encore, there was a sweet version of Kreisler’s Midnight Bells, with a seriously impressive dose of overflowing vibrato.

II. Saturday

Now somewhat in the know, my only concern for the second session was spontaneity. Would the necessary interaction with the crowd grow stale? Would the performances and the totality of experience be distinct from the previous? The only major change before the proceedings even began was the presence of cameras in the room, set to record the album cover and some candid shots as well. Anyone who has ever been to the MET during a taping for television knows how annoying photographers can be. However, the very presence of the wandering shutterbug caused Ms. S-S to be positively apologetic in her introduction to this uninitiated crowd. The entire evening had a somewhat different feel to it anyway, since there were already some wonderful takes “in the can”. As a result, the second night was more of a standard (at least in form and shape) recital.

Thus partially psychologically released from the tyranny of microphone and producer, the duo played a little less gingerly than in Act I. The Schubert was even more intense rhythmically, more danceable and devilish. The performance of the Beethoven was extremely powerful and less technically flawless. It will be interesting to see which reading makes the cut, the more accurate but slightly less passionate, or the occasionally wayward but febrile reprise (please note: not a hybrid!).

As in the first go round, it was the Poulenc that gave them trouble. Whenever someone died in this composer’s life, he wrote a sonata about his reaction. These pieces are disarmingly human: complex, searching, sometimes uncomfortably personal (cf. the horn or clarinet sonatas). Tonight it was the guitar-like intermezzo (the deceased in question was Lorca) that eluded the pair and no amount of retakes quite captured the proper otherworldliness of sweet memory that was its creator’s intent. Thankfully, they had nailed it on Wednesday.

One wonders if the script called for another excellent Beethoven to bring the house down. If so, these players delivered superbly. The Kreisler encore was again magical (it has been haunting me ever since Wednesday) and was followed by a scintillating (Ms. McDermott’s word) and fleet reading of the last movement of the Bach E Major Sonata. This reviewer will certainly await with anticipation the ultimate commercial product.

Upon tranquil recollection, the two evenings were unique in New York concert life. These two musicians are nothing if not risk takers and this may very well be the key to their splendid, if somewhat under-heralded, collaboration. Perhaps they are a little too avant-garde in their approach for some, but the quality of their performances is enhanced exponentially by what this critic used to call the “bullfighting” aspect of the art of Maria Callas. One never quite knows what to expect in advance, but will always be rewarded with an interesting memory. As Leonard Woolf used to say, the journey not the arrival matters.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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