Presented by the Carmel Music Society
By Scott MacClelland
I don’t ever recall seeing Libby Wallfisch vulnerable—until Sunday afternoon. Her playing at Carmel’s Bach Festival over nearly two decades was virtually, spookily, flawless. Technically, anyway, if not always given to probe into the deeper expression inherent in the music of Bach. But this time she went risky and her audience will not soon forget a most satisfying experience.
Since the early 1970s, Wallfisch has effectively positioned herself as the queen of Baroque violinists. Her instrument, her bow, and her attitude were as formidable as Margaret Thatcher’s force of personality. And, to some, equally overbearing. But Beethoven is not Bach, and the extraordinary range of his imagination demands a bouquet of style and adventure far away from the Baroque. The first of two recitals, on Sunday afternoon, served up four “sonatas for piano with violin” as Beethoven himself would have heard them (until he couldn’t) on classical-era violin and fortepiano.
It seems obvious that Beethoven would have approved of the modern concert grand piano given the grandeur and power of his music. Still, these sonatas, according to remarks by Breitman, were intended to be heard in salons—living rooms he called them—and those of us welcomed into Breitman and Wallfisch’s living room were so well rewarded by the performances that the standing ovation taken up at the end was like the breaking of a spell. Indeed, Wallfisch was visibly moved by her “old and new friends” in Carmel.
Following the pair’s reading of the first work, the early Sonata in D, Op.12/1, she spoke graciously of returning to the spot where she had become so recognized for her major impact on the Bach Festival, and said of this program that she hoped “Beethoven wins!”
As Breitman confirmed when he spoke after intermission, the easy balance between the two instruments was obvious from the start; neither player struggled with the other, as can happen with a modern piano. But even as the Sonata in D might seem like small beer next to the great “Kreutzer” sonata, it did not want for variety and surprises. The second movement’s theme and variations were almost funny for it.
Then came the C Minor sonata, Op. 30/2, from 1802, and instantly called to mind the Fifth Symphony. Here, the fortepiano showed it could growl like a threatened dog. For her part, Wallfisch used vibrato very sparingly, especially in the long Adagio cantabile movement. The risk here is notes that go slightly out of tune, which did happen a couple of times. But it has to be said that players with less acute hearing than Wallfisch often use vibrato to mask a poor sense of pitch.
As it turned out, Wallfisch needed to retune between movements a couple of times, and even Breitman’s fortepiano started to twang requiring him to tighten up some loosening strings. (He did praise the instrument, a modern copy of a late 18th century model, which he borrowed from the Ira Brilliant Beethoven Center at San Jose State.) The companion sonata in G, Op. 30/3, diverted the imagination toward the equally gracious 4th Piano Concerto, in the same key. Its final allegro is nothing short of a rustic peasant dance, witty and toe-tapping.
Then came the sunny “Spring” sonata, in F (same key as the pastoral 6th symphony) whose sweet melodies brought a smile to all but the most hardened faces. The expansively expressive adagio was a personal message from Wallfisch, but came with some squeals, as if her bow needed more rosin the better to bite into the strings. The scherzo, lasting all of 81 seconds, got a giggle from the audience, just ahead of the finale rondo and the cheers that followed it.