The performers at today’s Noontime Concerts™ recital (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral were violinist Daniel Lewin, pianist Helene Wickett, and cellist Joel Cohen. The program began with Lewin and Wickett performing Claude Debussy’s G minor sonata for violin and piano. Cohen then joined them for an arrangement of Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 4 “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night) for piano trio, presumably the version by Eduard Steuermann.
These are both major works from the dawn of twentieth-century modernism. “Verklärte Nacht” was composed in 1899. It was Schoenberg’s first major composition on a substantive durational scale (his earlier works were songs); and it stands as one of the major examples of how Schoenberg had pushed the logic of nineteenth-century harmony to extreme limits that his contemporaries could barely conceive. Debussy’s violin sonata, on the other hand, was that composer’s last instrumental work. Completed in 1917 it was the third of a projected set of six sonatas through which Debussy had reconceived the nineteenth-century concept of a sonata as boldly as Schoenberg had confronted nineteenth-century harmony. One cannot underestimate the historical significance of either of these pieces.
Unfortunately, today’s musicians failed to account for either of them with the respect they deserved. Much of the problem resided with Lewin, whose intonation always fell short of what was required for a satisfactory account of either Debussy or Schoenberg; and his approach to phrasing left just as much to be desired. When Cohen joined him, it seemed as if all the two of them shared was a lack of orientation to the tonal contexts established by both composers. That left Wickett, whose instrument never posed any problems of intonation. More importantly, however, she seemed keenly aware of Debussy’s rhetoric, approaching his sonata part with the same sensibility that any good pianist would bring to his solo compositions. Similarly, she seemed to appreciate how Steuermann attempted to capture the transparent sonorities of a string sextet within the sonorous capacities of a piano.
Nevertheless, just as one swallow does not make a spring (as Aristotle taught us), one pianist does not make a piano trio. These were compositions that could only succeed on the strength of individuals coming together to make music. In that respect the pianist could not salvage much from the failure of her colleagues to grasp and/or realize the musical values inherent in the efforts of either Debussy or Schoenberg.