General News · 10th April 2011
An Evening of French Music with Elizabeth Dolin and Bernadene Blaha.
On Thursday evening, April 7th, we heard an intellectually stimulating concert for cello and piano in Gorge Hall on Cortes Island. I accepted, as honour, the request of Whaletown Club’s Mae Sherwood for this review in spite of the difficulty to do justice to such eminent musicians. After hearing Elizabeth Dolin a few times in Gorge Hall, and many times in the radio (Galaxy), we have come to admire her grand, majestic tone and technically unencumbered ability of interpretive expression.
The program was educational for all of us. The first piece, a sonata (A-maj., Op. 80) by Charles-Marie J. A. Widor, seemed to be completely unknown to the audience. Although not widely known today, this composer was a prominent figure in the Paris music scene of the late 19th / early 20th century. He worked as assistant organist with Saint-Saens and occupied the chair of composition at the conservatory after Cesar Frank. There he demanded of his students a rigorous study of Bach’s organ music as basis for improvisation. The sonata did not display much similarity to Bach to the modern listener, but its highly complex rapidly varying harmonic sequences may have been inspired by him. During the concert it became evident that this composer was a virtuoso keyboard player. Ms Blaha certainly did not play the role of a secondary accompanist. A knowledgeable listener even suggested: if there was an accompanist here, it was the cellist. While executed in wonderfully disciplined concert, the piece must have been difficult to study. It certainly demanded concentrated attention from the listener.
The second offering, a sonata by Saint-Saens (C-min., Op 32), was much easier to digest by the uninitiated. It was classically structured, with theme, execution, variations, thematic return and conclusion. In her introduction, Ms Dolin mentioned a hymn in the second movement that conferred a church-like mood to the flow of music. Afterwards there was much guessing as to which hymn or chorale that might be. Perhaps Saint-Saens just used one phrase of a well known old hymn as guide for a subsequent free run of his phantasy. Alternatively, there may be a hymn in France that starts with traditional solidity and then dissolves in romantic bliss. Blissful, at any rate, was the performance, with perfect communication between both interplaying artists.
After the intermission we heard a sonata for cello and piano by Chopin (G-min.). This was a surprise for an audience mainly familiar with Chopin’s large volume of piano salon music and grand concertos. In this sonata the piano, although important and indispensable, did not play the overwhelming lead. Apart from the evident impossibility to overwhelm Elizabeth Dolin’s superbly sonorous melodic sounds, it clearly was the composer who interwove his incomparably fluid piano phrasings with the emotional strength of the cello, achieving mood effects that are impossible to obtain with either instrument alone. The fact that we did experience these unexpected moods in Chopin’s music testifies to the absolute instrumental mastery of both performers.
As encore, we heard The Swan from Saint-Saens’ Carnival. It is hard to imagine a better piece to bring out the wonderful Dolin sound.
For a concert of unsurpassable depth and intimacy, and for an introduction to largely unknown music, we thank both performers. We also thank Mae for creating the opportunity to hear them.