Impassioned rarities for two violins in Valentine’s Day program at Wolf Trap

Sat Feb 15, 2020 at 12:27 pm
Violinists Paul Huang and Danbi Um performed with pianist Orion Weiss Friday night at Wolf Trap.

Wu Han’s second season curating the chamber music series at Wolf Trap is nearing its end. The pianist has brought promising artists to the Barns, often in unexpected combinations and playing rarely heard repertoire. That trend continued Friday night with the Wolf Trap debut of violinists Paul Huang and Danbi Um, sometimes accompanied by pianist Orion Weiss. The assortment of surprises included plenty of romantic passion for Valentine’s Day.

Louis Spohr’s Duo Concertante, Op. 67, no. 2, is one of the composer’s several works for two violins. The first movement opened with the two playing in unison, then splitting apart as if into two facets of the same person. Spohr, a virtuoso violinist himself, pits the two instruments against one another, each one taking turns accompanying the other. The textural combinations run through a gamut of pleasing varieties, including thick chords of twin double-stops.

The two violinists traded the first and second parts from piece to piece. On the top part in Spohr, Huang deployed a broader range of sound, especially a demure and subtle melodic tone. Um did not play the accompanying role as well, but her more viscous, robust sound was thrilling when she had the upper hand. Each had a turn at the longing tune featured in the second movement, adorned with an ornate variation in the middle section. The third movement was a more vapid display of running passages, with some more interesting contrapuntal sections.

Um and Huang switched parts for Moritz Moszkowski’s Suite for Two Violins and Piano, a work with two spectacular inner movements. With the addition of the piano to the balance, intonation between the violinists took some time to settle in the first movement. Um leaned into the yearning phrases of the second movement, the broad tone of her instrument standing out from the complex texture.

The third movement’s pining theme, laid over itself as the two violins followed one another, featured some of the evening’s most svelte, soft ensemble playing. Orion Weiss was an able partner in this, with a solid technique and a wide variation of touch at the piano, adding a playful element to the somewhat insipid finale, marked by mannered dotted rhythms.

All three musicians gave a delicately shaded performance of Chris Rogerson’s Afterword, commissioned by Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts and heard in its world premiere. Moved by the death of soprano Jessye Norman, Rogerson opened the work with a theme arching upward into the high harmonics of the two violins. Initially a sort of “tuning” palette of fourths and fifths, the piece crystallized into major harmonies for a meditative, longing main theme.

The two violins stretched further into ethereal high harmonics, Um especially soaring on the first violin part. Avian trills in both instruments, a tribute to the twin larks of Richard Strauss’s song “Im Abendrot” as the composer acknowledged, led to a fast middle section of nervous runs. That agitation faded as the piece returned to the opening theme, the trill motif gently fading away to nothing.

The final selections felt like desserts offered in the spirit of encores. Huang, who plays an exquisite Guarneri del Gesù once owned by Henri Wieniawski, took the top part in two of that composer’s Op. 18 Etudes-Caprices. He opened the lyrical No. 2 accompanying himself in double-stops that materialized under the melody, joined eventually by Um in a slow waltz-like whirl. The faster No. 4, in the compound meter of a saltarello, featured dizzying sextuplet patterns amid stellar virtuosic playing by Huang especially.

Um’s torch-song tone, guttural and raspy on the G string, was the highlight of Amy Barlowe’s Hebraique Elegy for two violins. The two violinists came together again in the parallel lines of Pablo de Sarasate’s Navarra, a tour de force of virtuosic challenges. Weiss paced them with expert care, helping to navigate the countless rubato turns of hastening and slowing.

The Brentano String Quartet brings more surprises to the Barns at Wolf Trap with music by Beethoven, Davidovsky, Mendelssohn, and Palestrina 7:30 p.m. February 28.; 703-255-1868

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