Northwest BachFest kicked off its 2022-23 season last weekend with a pair of concerts at Barrister Winery framed as a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Zuill Bailey as its music director. Fittingly, Bailey himself, a world-renowned cellist, appeared in both concerts, as did violinist Chee-Yun, making her Spokane debut, and pianist Natasha Paremski, who had made several very impressive appearances already in our region.
Saturday’s concert began with a solo turn by Paremski, who performed the three Mazurkas Op. 63 of Frederic Chopin (1846-7) and the Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major (1940) of Sergei Prokofiev. After a brief interval, Chee-Yun and Bailey performed Zoltan Kodaly’s Duo for Violin and Cello Op. 7 (1914) and the Passacaglia (1894) by Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen.
Sunday’s program consisted entirely of trios for piano, violin and cello. It began with Rachmaninov’s “Trio Elegiaque” (1892), which was followed by the Trio in D minor of Anton Arenski (1894). The concert concluded with the greatest of all piano trios: the Trio No. 7 in B flat major Op. 97 of Beethoven (1811), known universally as the “Archduke Trio.”
The programs of the two concerts were sharply different, reflecting a difference in intent. It appeared that Saturday’s program was designed to display the full range of the artists’ technical and interpretive abilities, while Sunday was intended to show how well they could join with one another to produce trio performances that were harmonious and unified, even if that required that they subordinate their own uncommon qualities.
Paremski’s portion of the program began a bit ambiguously with performances of the Chopin Mazurkas that, while thoughtful and evocative, felt at odds with Chopin’s intent. As was usual for him, Chopin’s approach to this traditional Polish dance worked both within and without the tradition.
He was careful to maintain the unique rhythm of the dance in ¾ time – emphasizing the second beat of the measure rather than the first, as in a waltz – but enriching the harmonies and extending the length of melodies beyond anything anyone had ever imagined in a mazurka. Paremski’s handling of the rhythm, however, was very free.
The beat, in fact, sometimes disappeared altogether, while she emphasized the passionate quality of Chopin’s melodic writing. The emotions that Paremski revealed in these brief pieces seemed to strain against the confines of their brevity, as though the performer needed more scope in which to explore all of what the music suggested to her.
All restraints were off, however, with the beginning of the Prokofiev Sonata, which is one of the pinnacles of 20th century piano literature. Making detailed commentary on Paremski’s performance would be as pointless as focusing on the movement of individual leaves during a cyclone.
Suffice it to say that, for total command of the resources of the piano, and for vision and imagination in the exploration of a great tragic masterwork, Paremski’s rendition of the Sixth Sonata of Prokofiev was unsurpassed in the experience of this writer. It placed her among the elite of the world’s pianists at this point in history.
It is a great tribute to both Chee-Yun and Zuill Bailey that they were able to overcome any emotional exhaustion that remained in Paremski’s wake to engage not only attention, but also full emotional and intellectual engagement in their performance of Kodaly’s Duo, in which the composer sought to combine the folk traditions of Hungary with the most sophisticated and advanced techniques of European music.
This challenging music provided Spokane’s introduction to the art of Chee-Yun, whom Bailey described as “playing the violin as well as anyone in the world.” Nothing heard and seen would challenge that description. She is an exquisite artist who makes the awkward business of playing the violin look as graceful and natural as breathing.
This physical ease allows her to bow with the greatest freedom, achieving the variety of tone and attack she requires to realize her deeply considered and persuasive interpretations. As to her left hand, I believe she would need a hypnotherapist to help her recall the last time she played a note off-pitch.
Kodaly requires that the members of the duo retain their own individuality. While Brahms might have asked them to join in seamless harmony, Kodaly has them engage in arguments, disputes and competition, often making them forego the sonorous beauty they usually produce, in order to make their instruments growl, shout and whine. Bailey and Chee-Yun emerged triumphant from Kodaly’s thorny, uncompromising and ultimately inspiring score.
All three of the trios that made up Sunday’s program were composed by professional pianists; in the case of Rachmaninov and Beethoven, the greatest pianists of their time. This gave Paremski an opportunity to shine, which she surely did, not as a flashy virtuoso but as a keenly sensitive and supportive collaborator. Relying on the foundation she provided, Chee-Yun and Bailey were able to pour all their talent and energy into expressing the Slavic melancholy of Rachmaninov.
And also the Tchaikovskian charm and melodiousness of Arensky and the all-embracing warmth and geniality of the Archduke trio, perhaps Beethoven’s most uniformly sunny masterpiece. At its conclusion, the three musicians stood before the audience, radiant in the awareness of what they had achieved.
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