UC Presents’ retrospective offers a mixed program of Debussy sonatas

Sun Apr 12, 2015 at 11:54 am

By Tim Sawyier

Late sonatas of Claude Debussy were featured in the UC Presents' WW I series Saturday afternoon.
Late sonatas of Claude Debussy were featured in UC Presents’ WW I series Saturday afternoon.

The University of Chicago Presents’ World War I centenary weekend continued Saturday afternoon with a pair of programs at Fulton Recital Hall featuring sonatas of the period. Claude Debussy’s three late sonatas were the fare for the second event of the day, which made for an engaging exploration of the musical language the composer cultivated at the end of his life.

The performance opened with the last work Debussy wrote and with which he gave his final public performance, the 1917 Violin Sonata in G minor. Pianist Anna Polonsky joined Pacifica Quartet first violinist Simin Ganatra in a thoughtful and refined rendering. The opening violin lines achieved a spirit of calculated improvisation and Ganatra infused the E Major second theme with a rhapsodic aura. Her faultless harmonics and tastefully lurid slides enhanced the entire movement. Florid technical outbursts launched the second movement and the pair imbued the movement’s nervous repeated notes with a schizoid anxiety. In the finale, the closing rumble from Polonsky before the accelerando coda was a fine example of the pianist’s musical acumen.

Pacifica cellist Brandon Vamos then joined Polonsky for the remarkably condensed 1915 Cello Sonata. The opening theme of the Prologue was noble and grand, Vamos playing with a commodious tone that he sensitively thinned out for the movement’s wistful, sighing motives. Polonsky again proved a dynamic partner, occasionally rising slightly from the piano bench to add force to isolated massive chords. Vamos’ violent pizzicatos in the second movement were so emphatic that his instrument’s end pin slid out at one point, which showed the cellist’s devotion to his cause, though the bowed second theme—which Debussy marked ironique—lacked the requisite irreverence. In the finale Polonsky achieved lapidary articulation throughout, fleet runs leaping off her fingers, and the work came to a vigorous close.

The Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp of 1915 is the tamest of the trio of late works. Debussy planned six sonatas but, sadly, passed away after completing just three.

Flutist Tim Munro, formerly of eighth blackbird, played the opening statement with a robust yet direct tone, which would have benefited from greater modulation throughout the performance. Pacifica violist Masumi Per Rostad and harpist Maria Luisa Rayan often conveyed the work’s enchanting mix of a Baroque sonata with Impressionist idioms, yet there were numerous disagreements on pitch between Munro and Rostad.

The second movement suffered from a lack of blend as well, but the soaring central melody of the flute and viola over harp arpeggios was lush and affecting. Munro’s pyrotechnic playing in the finale was most impressive, especially when contrasted with Rostad’s occasional roughness. The lack of concentration and expressive consistency undermined pacing and structure, fatal in such a gentle and elliptical composition. A sizable audience quorum trampled on the finale’s closing bars with premature eruption of applause, a fitting conclusion to a game if not particularly refined performance.

The University of Chicago Presents’ World War I Centenary Weekend closes 3 p.m. Sunday at the Logan Center with chamber works by Prokofiev, Bartók, and Elgar. https://chicagopresents.uchicago.edu/events/schedule

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