By Dennis D. Rooney
Sitting in the Music Room of Whitehall, the 1902 stately home of Henry M. Flagler at Cocoanut Row and Whitehall Way in Palm Beach, and now the museum that bears his name, reminds me a little of hearing a concert at the Frick Collection in New York.
Henry Clay Frick and Flagler, were both tycoons (steel and oil, respectively) whose residences became notable for concerts. True, the Flagler doesn’t have Watteau panels in its Music Room, but it does have a group of caryatids sporting candelabra on their heads.
The decorative centerpiece, however, is a 1903 Model B Steinway grand piano in an art case with gilt decorations that was a gift from Flagler to his wife, Mary Lily, in 1903. For many decades, the piano had been absent from the building, only to be returned for the museum’s centennial in 2002. It was claimed that it had not been played during its absence. Hearing it played by Nikolaas Kende, who partnered violinist Jolente De Maeyer, it was clear that, if so, the instrument had been lovingly restored.
These Belgian artists offered a program that began with Beethoven and ended with Schubert. Interestingly, both works by those composers that were chosen had been recorded in the late 1920s by Fritz Kreisler, one of the most famous violinists of the first half of the last century, and the equally celebrated pianist, Sergei Rachmaninov. De Maeyer and Kende did nothing to emulate that duo except to offer their own musically sensitive, stylistically aware and expressive interpretations.
One noticed immediately the pervasive lyricism of their playing. The historic piano was voiced more dulcetly in its upper register than is usual for modern Steinways and was also somewhat less powerful in the lower register, making it ideally suited for the rather reverberant acoustics of the room. It is truly an instrument for chamber music. Kende had its measure from the outset and gave wholly successful support to De Maeyer throughout. She, playing a Guadagnini violin with a Tourte bow, displayed an excellent technical foundation and considerable interpretative experience.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata in G, Op. 30, No. 3, is the last of three such works gathered under that opus number. It was written between 1801 and 1802, and published in May 1803, dedicated to Tsar Alexander I of Russia. (There is some dispute over whether or not Beethoven received a diamond ring that the tsar was supposed to provide in return.) Like its companions in the set, the sonata is a mature work that reflects increasing abstraction of the composer’s musical materials while also indulging in some unconventional rhythmic and dynamic features, but the overall impression is pastoral with rustic tinges. De Maeyer and Kinde made an immediate impression in the first movement’s opening scalar passages ending on a high G. These were both forceful and elegant. The following minuet can easily be played sentimentally but the players avoided that in favor of singing style and rhythmic subtlety. The dance-like final rondo brought the work to a spirited conclusion.
Felix Mendelssohn wrote three violin sonatas but only that in F minor, Op. 4, composed in 1824, was published in his lifetime. It has brief cadenzas for both instruments and a mood influenced by both ardent romanticism and Hebraic cantillation. It begins with a passage for solo violin. Even at age 14, Mendelssohn’s exploration of Bach can be discerned. De Maeyer and Kinde explored its often-stormy moods expertly.
After intermission came Mélancholie by Belgian composer César Franck, who himself contributed one of the most popular of all violin sonatas, written in 1886, to the repertoire. About that same time, he composed a leçon de solfège for use in his teaching at the Paris Conservatory. He seems to have forwarded the little piece to his publisher, who doubtless arranged it for violin and piano, but it did not appear in that form until 1911, by which time Franck had been dead for two decades. De Maeyer and Kinde pleasingly negotiated its contrasts in texture and dramatic shaping that suggest the echoes of its pedagogical origins.
Franck’s training was at the keyboard but Franz Schubert’s was as a violinist, and his idiomatic writing for the instrument is attractively displayed in his Sonata in A (D. 574), written in August 1817. Its intimate lyric exchange has made it a favorite work since its publication in 1851, one of a number of works posthumously discovered by the composer’s brother, Ferdinand and published by Diabelli, who gave it the nickname “Duo.” Occasional attempts at virtuosity do not persist yet give plenty of technical challenges. De Maeyer and Kinde made it all sound easy.
For an encore, they played Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin, one of the Alt-Wiener Tanzweise published in 1905. (Kreisler deliberately misattributed them to Joseph Lanner but later confessed to authoring them himself.) It was a clever choice to bind the program together (beginning and ending in the key of G), although the players suggested little of the miniature’s humor or charm, and seemed more focused on energy.