Kavafian, McDermott unevenly matched in CMS Mozart program

Fri Mar 09, 2018 at 1:13 pm
Ida Kavafian and Anne-Marie McDermott performed a program of Mozart violin sonatas Thursday night at the Rose Studio. Photo: Cherylynn Tsushima

Ani Kavafian and Anne-Marie McDermott performed a program of Mozart violin sonatas Thursday night at the Rose Studio. Photo: Cherylynn Tsushima

Superstars are rarely the name of the game at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. New York’s most vital presenter of chamber music mostly features young up-and-coming musicians or established players who are respected among their peers and among quartet devotees, though not signed to big deals with major record companies.

No doubt violinist Ani Kavafian has earned that respect over a long career, and continues to earn it in her capacity as an educator.

Alas much of her playing in her Thursday evening recital with Anne-Marie McDermott showed evidence of diminished powers. In their performances of six Mozart violin sonatas, Kavafian barely seemed like an equal partner, laboring to play her part while McDermott accomplished the piano part with perfect grace.

Kavafian’s tone in the Sonata K. 296 was anemic; there was little color or definition in her sound, and for the most part it felt as though she was simply doing her best to hang on and navigate technical difficulties cleanly. Her vibrato was forced, and just managing to trill evenly seemed a struggle. McDermott sparkled by contrast, bringing a bright, easy glow out of the piano. Whatever elegance there was in the Sonata in E-flat, K. 302, she provided all of it.

K. 378 began well, showing a crisper, brighter sound than the two previous, but Kavafian quickly fell into her familiar problems. McDermott continued to shine here, with lovely, liquid scales, and arpeggios that cascade with natural grace. In the closing Rondeau of this sonata, she brought a firm sound and a mock seriousness that hinted at a sense of humor in the music.

Then, after intermission, a different violinist seemed to have appeared—Kavafian’s playing was suddenly assured, and more assertive than anywhere on the first half. At last there was depth to her tone, and a confident energy to her playing in the Sonata K. 305. There were moments of breathtaking loveliness, such as a climbing phrase that turned with a sigh at the top. Both players conveyed a clear sense of character in the wide-ranging variations of the second movement, bringing to each a particular charm.

The Sonata in E minor, K. 304, was similarly strong, offering a powerful contrast between the teary sentiment and stormy conviction of the opening Allegro.

The final sonata of the evening, K. 454, sadly lost its way again. After a vigorous opening, the discomfort in Kavafian’s playing seemed to creep back in, as her sound—and consequently her musical ideas—lost focus.

Alice Tully Hall next door may be grander, but the parlor-like feel of the Rose Studio more closely captures the essential intimate spirit of CMS. Present at Thursday’s recital was the sage Charles Wadsworth, the pianist served as CMS’s founding director from 1969.

The live-stream audience may have been confused, but everyone in the room surely felt right at home when, in the silence after the evening’s second selection, he observed from the back of the room, “That was really nice.” McDermott beamed and replied, simply, “Thank you, Charles.”

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