Nimrod Pfeffer, piano, and Alex Fortes, violin, give a private concert

It’s tough to be a music student these days, especially a student of classical music — not that it hasn’t always been hard, but it seems like in more recent years there has been an increased focus on technical brilliance and dazzling showmanship. People even comment on the posture of musicians. The way you physically approach the piano (or any other instrument) certainly affects the outcome of sound, but that isn’t necessarily affected by posture. For example, Emil Gilels frequently hunched over the keys when he played, and he was a brilliant pianist. A more unfortunate consequence of this shift in focus has been that less emphasis is placed on passion. I am impressed by those who show great technical skill and admire their dedication and hours of practice, but music is nothing without emotion. Call me old-fashioned, but I feel that music should convey a story or emotion. Music is a means of creating wonders beyond spoken language, and indeed it is more primitive than speech. However, written-out notes alone do not make music, nor does simply going through vacant motions to create sound from an instrument. True music requires an emotional aspect to spark it alive. The best musicians — dare I risk offending anyone by saying true musicians — have both technique and passion. I happened to see two young men who possess all of these qualities, and they just so happen to be music students at Mannes College. Performing at a private concert hosted by a family friend last Saturday afternoon were Nimrod Pfeffer on piano and Alex Fortes on violin.

Opening the program was Nimrod Pfeffer to play Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, Op. 109. The piece opens with a gentle flow of notes playing a motif which is a recurring theme throughout the first movement — although with slight variations — yet after its introduction it is quickly replaced by a series of slow, legato chords. Those then give way to a series of arpeggios and runs which lead back into the original motif. The music of the first movement is largely delicate, full of both solid and rolled chords as well as trills, arpeggios, and runs. That delicacy is retained even in the more forceful forte passages, and the tenderness of the music is never overwhelmed by passion that is nonetheless present. In the second movement the passion overtakes the gentle quality of the opening movement and it’s very serious in manner. At the same time, however, the second movement is also refined and elegant even in its tumultuous state. The final movement consists of a theme with several variations and is quite stately in each incarnation. Each variation effectively carries the movement forward and becomes an elaboration of a musical idea, all of them together combining to create a cohesive whole. In the last minute and a half of the piece the music returns to the opening of the movement and closes quietly.

Next was Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78. Full of movement from the opening, the piece is slightly melancholy despite its lyrical tenderness. Sometimes called the “Rain Sonata,”  at times the piece in fact brings to mind warm and sunny days of joyful freedom, however fleeting it may be. Although the first movement opens gently, the ending is quite grandiose. More shifty than the first movement, the second begins with piano playing hesitantly, eventually led fully into song by violin. Despite its Adagio marking, however — which is often an indication of the movement being legato and somewhat more subdued than the other movements surrounding it — the second movement is full of pauses, accented notes, and drama. To close, though, violin and piano return to the shy moodiness of the beginning and then burst skyward before quieting once more to play a few lingering notes. Unlike either the first of second movement, the third seems beyond reach and contains a sense of mysticism. The music is simultaneously sad and hopeful, and it evokes the feeling of running after something you’ll never be able to catch up to or understand yet feel compelled to run after nonetheless.

After a brief intermission, to start the second half of the program Alex came out to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor for Unaccompanied Violin (BWV 1003). Bach innovatively bent genres in the piece, and the results are astonishing. The composer’s works are, partly due to their time period, less impassioned than the works of Romantic era composers such as Franz Liszt, Frederick Chopin, or Robert Schumann; they are, however, just as animated. The first movement of Sonata No. 2 is exploratory within the confines of unwavering elegance and refinement. The second is particularly interesting texturally. Repeatedly, lines are played forte then immediately echoed more softly. At the same time, the music continues to evolve and never stays in one place for long. An abrupt phrase interrupts the otherwise steady flow of the music near the end of the movement, but the dance-like melody picks up again briefly to close the movement. In the third movement violin provides both the melody and accompaniment, and if I wasn’t witnessing it firsthand I would have sworn that there were two violins playing. The final movement speeds on from its opening and has a sense of being highly structured, yet at the same time it sounds highly improvisational. The freedom the music seems to possess is too effortless to actually have been effortless, however. It is the kind of clarity of expression that can in fact only be gained through genius on the part of the composer and hours upon hours of practice on the part of the musician. Such brilliance and beauty do not come easy.

The last piece on the program was another Beethoven sonata, this time Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47, “Kreutzer.” The opening is quite mellow, but you can sense the music is going to break at any minute — and so it does, like a storm cloud. Actually, a storm is an excellent metaphor for the music. Violin strikes like lightning, swift and intense, while piano crashes like thunder alongside it, and together the two instruments create a very nearly physically charged environment. The intensity is broken repeatedly by passages of brightness, but the dark mood always returns to rear its raging head. In contrast, the second movement is decidedly light and charming. Violin and piano are intertwined, but they also retain distinct parts. During some passages by piano there are slight hesitations, like little hiccups, while violin plays uninterrupted lines. After the music goes through a transition, both instruments play even more airily, fluttering in circles and spiraling upward time and time again. After another transition the music becomes temporarily seeped with sadness, but it is quickly replaced by a gentle lull as the music takes on an ethereal quality. The presto final movement is dark and playful, and piano and violin are heavily interdependent, at times even playing in unison. Even when the two instruments don’t play in unison, however, the structure of the movement is one that creates a dynamic duet between violin and piano, each furthering the other and, consequently, the movement’s progression. At forty minutes in its entirety the piece is much lengthier than the Beethoven sonata that opened the concert, but the overarching theme is almost as compact. There is so much contained in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 that witnessing its release is exhilarating. As established earlier, however, not every musician can make the music come alive. Nimrod Pfeffer and Alex Fortes can, though, and I was deeply moved by the immense technique, spirit, and sensitivity of their playing.

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