One may not often see links between the cultures of Norway and Azerbaijan (okay, you’ve got me – none ever crossed my mind!), but the excellent pairing of Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing and Azerbaijani pianist Nargiz Aliyarova made a compelling case for just such connections this week at Bruno Walter Auditorium. Playing works of Ali-Zadeh, Garayev, and Melikov from Azerbaijan, and Brustad and Grieg from Norway – along with a Prokofiev opening – they gave a uniquely stimulating recital entitled “From East to West.”
The program was subtitled, “Prokofiev Violin Sonata No. 2 and Works from Azerbaijan and Norway,” but the Russian role in the evening’s theme seemed to be that of a musical bridge (alluded to in Dr. Aliyarova’s comments about the influence of Russian teachers on both performers and their chosen composers).
The focal roles of Norway and Azerbaijan were underscored in Dr. Aliyarova’s introductory remarks, including references to the Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl, whose Azerbaijan-Viking theories have invited discussion years after his death (the reader may find more about these fascinating but highly debated hypotheses here Thor Heyerdahl Azerbaijan-Viking theories.
The evening was almost too tantalizing in too many directions to assimilate, so there is definitely ore to be mined for numerous future lecture-recitals; the overarching theme, however, was one of global unity. In that spirit, Dr. Aliyarova, the director and founder of the National Music and Global Cultural Society, presented this recital as part of the stated mission “to bring people of different ethnic groups together through their national music to global culture.”
Matching the intensity of the stated mission was an intensity in the duo’s opening performance of the Prokofiev Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 94. The work is often heard in its original version for flute and piano, but Prokofiev transcribed it later for the legendary violinist David Oistrakh, and numerous violinists have since adopted it into their violin repertoires. Ms. Hemsing and Dr. Aliyarova gave it an exciting account, exhibiting the technical and musical versatility to accommodate myriad changes of spirit, mood, and tempo without loosening the grip of its neoclassical restraint. Ms. Hemsing proved to be a violinist of consistently pure and refined sound, conveying well Prokofiev’s placid lyricism at the opening, from which its ever wider expressive range grew. The boisterous accents in the vigorous Scherzo were just right from both players, and the sinuous chromaticism of the Andante had an intoxicating sway to it. A memorable moment was the brief F-major section in the final movement – played with a special ethereal quality. Dr. Aliyarova was the assured collaborator throughout, projecting the music’s brilliance and humor – the latter especially in the “piano exercise” moments of the last movement.
Ms. Hemsing took the program to Norway next with a work listed as Fairy Tale for solo violin by Bjarne Brustad (1895-1978). It combined a pesante fiddler’s style with silky improvisatory flights, and its tonal language brought to mind how Bartok might have sounded had he been Norwegian. Ms. Hemsing spoke of it evoking the trolls of Norwegian folklore, and she played it with captivating whimsy. The piece seemed to fall into sections and perhaps was actually the Fairy Tale Suite one has seen listed elsewhere, but, while it would have been better to have more specifics on the printed program, the spoken introduction – and playing – did spur the listener’s imagination. Ms. Hemsing is an exceptional violinist who has also championed on disc the largely forgotten Norwegian composer Hjalmar Borgström (whose work sadly we did not get to hear). Her other repertoire has ranged from Bach, Beethoven, and Bartók to Tan Dun (for whom she recently premiered a violin concerto with the Oslo Philharmonic). To read more one can visit eldbjorghemsing.info.
Dr. Aliyarova closed the first half with an arresting solo, Music for Piano by Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (b. 1947 and currently living in Germany). Ms. Ali-Zadeh composed the work in 1989 (publishing it nearly a decade later), and in it she used a prepared piano technique to evoke the plaintive sound of traditional Azerbaijani music (presumably the tar, a lute-like string instrument). The “preparation” was Dr. Aliyarova’s placement of a chain on the piano strings to create a buzzing metallic timbre on a selected set of notes (including a very prominent, hypnotically repeated middle F-sharp), allowing traditional piano tones to ring out above it in quasi-improvisatory outpourings. Ferocious toccata-like passages in the bass alternated with the more songful sections, both of which the pianist imbued with great emotion. Dr. Aliyarova was a compelling interpreter for this work and is clearly a dynamo who combines excellent pianistic skills and artistry with her role as presenter and educator. More can be learned at her website: www.nargizaliyarova.com
Having heard a piece by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, we were treated after
intermission to music of Ms. Ali-Zadeh’s teacher of piano and
composition, Gara Garayev (1918-1982), one of the leaders in the
Azerbaijani music world. Garayev’s Adagio for violin and piano from his ballet Seven Beauties brought a lush, tonal style not far from the language of Borodin and some Khatchaturian (as in the Adagio from Spartacus),
and the duo reveled in its unabashed Romanticism. Garayev was himself a
pupil of Shostakovich and thus could act as a connection to the Russian
master for his own students, including for Arif Melikov (b. 1933),
whose work we heard next. Melikov’s Monologue from the ballet, Legend of Love
reflected some of Garayev’s expansive lyricism but with even more
exotic flavor to its lines. Dr. Aliyarova and Ms. Hemsing melded well to
convey the spirit in both pieces.
The concert was capped off by a Norwegian composer who needs no introduction, Edvard Grieg, whose Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano in C minor, Op. 45 is enjoying a busy spring (including a performance this reviewer was assigned to write up just a few weeks ago). It was given an impassioned performance here by both musicians, but Ms. Hemsing emerged as a particularly powerful interpreter for her countryman, delivering in each note and phrase the vividness and nuance that one hears more often from opera singers. Dr. Aliyarova was excellent in her handling of the work’s myriad challenges, only occasionally allowing accompanying parts in the piano to overpower the violin. Some of the nasty octaves and passagework in the last movement slipped a bit from her grasp, matters which might have been resolved by reining in the tempo a bit, but the duo had a “go for it” spirit which deserved admiration. After all, a few imperfections only remind an audience that these are human beings.
On the subject of being human comes one reservation for the evening: in live performance the performer (who is human!) should not be subject to the distractions of cameras moving around, especially on stage. One assumes that the wandering of one photographer onto the stage (in a bright red shirt, no less) may have been condoned at least initially by the performers, probably for purposes related to the ever-encroaching forces of social media, but it was a distraction for audience and performer alike and an affront to the music itself. It also implies, even if obliquely, that some virtual audience in the future matters more than those who traveled and made a point of being present.
Another reservation was the lack of program notes about the music itself, because, if the mission is to draw connections, notes can help to educate beyond the scope of some rather offhand comments from the stage. Though one could argue that most works can be researched online these days, the same could be said of performers’ biographical notes, which in this case were fairly extensive. Web links to the biographies might have sufficed, allowing room in the program for a bit more content about the composers and works themselves. That said, one looks forward to this organization’s further musical explorations.
Written by Rorianne Schrade on April 30, 2019