Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Janine Jansen and Friends - Bartok, Szymanowski & Messiaen - 12/07/17

Bartok: Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano 
Szymanowski: Myths for Violin and Piano 
Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps 
Janine Jansen: Violin 
Lucas Debargue: Piano 
Martin Frost: Clarinet 
Torleif Thedéen: Cello 

In our heady days of irrepressible women’s empowerment, it is particularly comforting to see über-talented female musicians assertively perform on concert hall stages around the world, even if there is still a long way to go in that field as well. Witnessing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s indomitable Marin Alsop at Strathmore a little while ago during my weekend in D.C. was both heartening, because she seemed to be going stronger than ever, and depressing, because she’s still only one of a tiny handful of female conductors and/or music directors worldwide. But things are changing.
Although the season started just a couple of months ago, I have been lucky enough to attend concerts featuring remarkable female soloists, each making her very own indelible mark. My non-exhaustive list has included fearlessly adventuress Leila Josefowicz at the 92Y, petite dynamo Yuja Wang at the Kennedy Center, and inconspicuously formidable Janine Jansen in Zankel Hall this past Thursday for the first concert of her Carnegie Hall Perspectives series, which handily sold out. Now that is one way to officially arrive on the New York music scene.
And since she is not only much in demand but well-connected too, the worldly Dutch violinist surrounded herself with French pianist Lucas Debargue, Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst and Swedish cellist Torleif Thedéen for a truly exciting program consisting of two intriguing pieces from Eastern Europe and, to my boundless delight, a French classic that has to be one of my favorite music works ever.

Originally composed for classical violinist Joseph Szigeti and jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, Bela Bartok’s Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano focuses squarely on the violin and clarinet, which is not a bad thing when the former is handled by Janine Jansen and the latter by Martin Fröst. Making plenty of fascinating sounds and alluring moves, Fröst stood out as the ideal woodwind counterpart, his clarinet playfully engaging into exhilaratingly fast dance routines with the always game violin while the piano took a thoughtful step back.
But Lucas Debargue got his moment in the spotlight too when he joined Jansen for Karol Szymanowski’s Myths for Violin and Piano, a set of three short tone poems that were as gorgeously impressionistic as Contrasts’ three movements had been vigorously earthy. Quietly evoking natural elements such as shimmering water, refreshing wind, a murmuring forest and some playful sprites, the duo delicately highlighted myriads tiny details with pointed precision while wrapping the whole performance in a subtly poetic atmosphere.
When I first heard Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) it hit me like a ton of bricks, which is ironic considering the generally ethereal nature of the music, and I did not even know its extraordinary genesis yet. I was, however, already a budding fan of Messiaen’s œuvre, never mind that I don’t really care for bird songs, and even less for Catholicism.
Partially due to the strict limitations that literally come with the territory when one composes and performs in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, partially due to Messiaen’s relentless imagination, Quatuor pour la fin du temps has an unusual instrumentation. But that does not keep it from delivering a 50-minute emotional punch that often stays with the listener long after the last notes of “Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus” (Praise to the Immortality of Jesus) have faded away.
On Thursday night, the four musicians, including cellist Torleif Thedéen, who seamlessly fit in in his only appearance of the evening, gave a riveting performance of the ambitious piece. Although the work requires potent individual voices, it really comes alive through a truly collaborative effort from all the participants. This expert multi-tasking was on full display on the stage on Thursday to try to fulfill a challenging mission: Fully expressing the poignant eeriness of the music while making it totally accessible. And the mission was brilliantly accomplished.