Wednesday’s installment of the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts featured the Chicago introduction of the Hessler Duo. Taiwanese-American Violinist Yun-Ting Lee and Korean pianist Youn-Jung Cha met at the Cleveland Institute of Music while living as housemates on Hessler Street. Their performance suggested considerable promise for this emerging ensemble.
Two works on the program highlighted the long friendship between violinist/composer Joseph Joachim and pianist/composer Johannes Brahms. Both pieces emphasize melodic lyricism and showcase the violin. This is no surprise in the case of Joachim, one of the leading fiddlers of the late 19th Century. Joachim’s “Romanze” from Drei Stücke (Three Pieces), op. 2, opened the concert. Lee’s violin just sang in an impassioned performance from start to finish. Joachim wrote a flowery, albeit restrained, piano accompaniment and Cha carefully delivered. She was very measured in her approach and, appropriately, stayed in the background.
The second work on the program was Brahms’ Violin Sonata no. 1 in G-major, op. 78. This awesome work is unusual for Brahms in that it has very few loud and climactic passages. The entire thing revolves around wistful melodies juxtaposed in wonderful, unexpected ways and key signatures. These are not just any melodies; they are among the most hauntingly beautiful in Brahms’ entire canon. Climaxes do happen, but they are very subtle and surprisingly low-key; it even ends quietly. This sonata represents Brahms’ musical craft at its finest.
It is also unusual for Brahms because, like the Joachim, it is very much centered on the violin. All other duos that Brahms wrote for piano and another instrument have many passages where the piano rules, while the other instrument accompanies. That is rarely the case here.
This reviewer always approaches performances of favorite works with some trepidation. Will it be any good? The Hessler Duo’s performance of Brahms’ first violin sonata was better than good. It was delightful. From the soulful, lyrical opening, Lee’s violin playing was passionate the entire way with a note-perfect performance. Cha provided excellent backup, only missing a couple notes. In those few opportunities to shine, she did so marvelously. For such a young ensemble, they showed tremendous cohesion, especially evident in the quiet, pensive passage toward the end of the slow, middle movement. It was delicate, subtle, and sophisticated. Overall, the Duo captured the wandering feel of a lyrically melodic work that goes in a many directions, but eventually ends back at home.
The concert ended with a very short piece that was more of a programmed encore. Claude Debussy’s Beau Soir was originally written as a song with piano accompaniment. Violinist Jascha Heifitz transcribed for violin. With a very eerie air, it fit in well with the program, matched by the Hessler Duo’s fine performance.
Next Wednesday’s Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts will feature local, 18-year old pianist Kimberly Han performing Bach, Haydn, and Chopin. August 14, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St, Chicago 12:15 pm. Get there early to get a good seat. Produced by the International Music Foundation, these free concerts take place in the domed, Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center. Starting at quarter-past noon, the concerts are designed to fill the remaining 45 minutes of lunch hour. Classical station wfmt simultaneously broadcasts these concerts, with a video feed on wfmt Facebook page. The Hessler Duo’s performance can be viewed here.