Violinist Robert Chen and pianist Matthew Hagle kicked off the Music Institute of Chicago’s 2019-2020 concert season on Sunday afternoon with a delightful performance of music from the 18th and 19th centuries at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston. Chen is the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Hagle is a concert pianist and faculty member at the MIC. Both have a history of performing chamber music, but they have only been playing together since last year. Sunday’s performance displayed a remarkable level of ensemble cohesion and awareness, as if Chen and Hagle had been performing together for years.
The concert opened with an early, three-movement work by Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat major, op.12 no.3. Chen and Hagle performed this piece in recognition of the 250th anniversary of this composer’s birth. Having performed all 32 of piano sonatas live on WFMT from 2013-2017, Hagle is intimately familiar with Beethoven.
This violin sonata has the gusto one typically finds in early music by Beethoven, but it stays pretty close to the musical model put in place by Haydn and Mozart. It offered an immediate opportunity for Chen and Hagle to show off their musicianship, especially the way they handled the frequent dynamic shifts and the runs toward the end of the opening section of the Allegro con spirito.
The outer movements are pretty conventional, but Beethoven found unusual levels of expression in the slow, middle movement, Adagio con multi espression, which Chen and Hagle captured well with a beautiful violin tone and careful ensemble interaction in tender, yet tumultuous, passages. While aurally excellent, visually Chen showed little emotion. This was a very business-like performance of the Beethoven.
Emotion oozed out of Chen in the next work on the program, Sonata No. 1 in A-Major for Violin and Piano, op. 13, by Gabriel Fauré, an exceptionally passionate work. It started with Hagle’s right hand carefully playing a dainty melody while his left hand offered a roiling accompaniment that seemed to be present wherever the opening Allegro molto went. Chen’s violin soon entered with the same melody over the same accompaniment, with the players weaving in and out as the work progressed. The aural fabric in the opening movement was so good, this reviewer found himself completely absorbed as the feelings and passions ebbed and flowed in a masterful rendition.
The passionate playing continued in the slower second movement, but contrast came through in the playful, Scherzo-like third movement, Allegro vivo. Chen and Hagle approached it very gingerly, with a light yet precise touch. They successfully created an air of fun and frolic.
Following intermission, Chen gave an marvelous interpretation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E-Major, BWV 1006. Of Bach’s six extended masterpieces for solo violin, this is the sunniest, and brightness shone from Chen’s violin. As with Bach’s other works for solo violin and solo cello, this Partita applies the baroque counterpoint style to a four-stringed instrument where only two strings can be bowed simultaneously for an extended period. The performance challenge is allowing multiple, separate melodies to come forth and seamlessly mesh.
Chen nailed it, as shown from the rapid opening Prelude, where his fingers and bow perfectly maneuvered at a pace slightly faster than one often hears. The following six movements are set to dance-type forms prevalent in the 18th century, although modern ears find little to dance to here. The slow Loure and up-tempo Gavotte en rondeau offered a great opportunity for Chen to reproduce with precision the various melodies sounded simultaneously.
The program ended with a rousing rendition of Franz Scubert’s Rondo in b-minor for violin and piano, D 895 (Rondo Brillant). As is typical of Schubert, this piece combines passages of loud intensity with periods of quiet melodic reflection, all set to lovely melodies and unexpected harmonic shifts. After a march-like introduction, the work moves into an extended rondo largely built around a two note motif that forms the backbone of all the musical themes that follow.
This Rondo gave Chen and Hagle plenty of opportunities to display cohesion and finesse, starting from the beginning, where Hagle banged out the chords, after which Chen carefully sounded out rapid runs and scales. From there they seamlessly moved into the Rondo’s many sections. It was an awesome performance of a work that is not heard all that often.
Following several ovations, Chen and Hagle offered a lovely encore, Souvenir de Vienna, by Heinz Provost. This piece is from Intermezzo a 1939 film with Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman. It was an excellent way to cap off a delightful afternoon of music making.
The Music Institute of Chicago’s 2019-2020 concert series continues on Sunday, October 27, with a family concert Spooktacular, a Halloween extravaganza. The concert includes The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, for which Institute faculty will perform in costume. After the concert, there will be trick or treating and other activities throughout the facility; audience members of all ages are encouraged to wear costumes. Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, 3:00 pm, $10 general admission for all events.