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Review: Violinist Janine Jansen’s ‘Perspectives’ Proves Exciting and Enlightening at Zankel Hall

By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, December 11, 2017

Dutch violinist Janine Jansen’s reverential following is bound to proliferate in the wake of her five-concert Perspectives series this season at Carnegie Hall, the second installment of which took place December 9 at Zankel Hall.  Two days after a series debut that included pieces by Szymanowski, Messiaen, and Bartok, Jansen, along with pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk and cellist Gorleif Thedéen, presented an all-Russian program, including early works by Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, plus a mature masterwork by Prokofiev.

Shostakovich composed his Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor at age seventeen, while still a student at the Leningrad Conservatory. Normally this piece is eclipsed by the protean, volatile, and frequently devastating Trio No. 2 in E minor, but the first Trio is marvelously woven—a powerful (if early) artistic statement during which one can practically hear Shostakovich’s distinctive and gripping musical identity evolve in real time. Jansen, a genuine marvel as a soloist, is possibly even better as a chamber musician—intensely attuned to what her colleagues are doing but also subtly leading by example. In the Shostakovich Trio, Jansen and cellist Thedéen went out of their way to match each other’s nuances of phrasing, dynamics, and sound color. In unison phrases they sometimes diminuendoed to the limits of audibility together, producing exquisite wisps of sound. In the loud, vigorous sections, like the bravura unison passage for all three instruments at the end of the piece, the level of perfect synchronicity was breathtaking. Jansen is an unusual combination of self-effacing and explosive—when the music heats up and she throws herself into it physically, she’s pushing herself to her limits in service of the piece, not showing off with empty, virtuosic flamboyance.

Prokofiev’s stunning Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major concluded the first half. Although Prokofiev originally wrote the piece for flute and piano, he transcribed it for violin at the request of David Oistrakh. I’ve known and loved this piece almost my entire life, but Jansen nonetheless offered surprises at every turn, not by distorting anything, but by letting us hear each phrase through her supremely attuned sensibility; she had me hanging on every note. The second movement was a headlong lunge with skittering, breathless utterances, and a diabolically rendered second theme. In the rapturous middle section of the third movement, where Prokofiev seems to be splitting open chords and letting previously unheard chromatic riches pour out, Jansen was a consummate tour guide. In the galvanizing last movement, her sharp bow strokes exploded with tensile energy. It even felt like an artistically meaningful experience to watch her listen and concentrate during the piano solos.

Like Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff was represented by an early piece—in this case, his Trio elégiaque No. 2 in D Minor, composed in 1893 as a memorial upon the death of Tchaikovsky, who was a powerful early influence on him. Listening to this piece is a deeply moving experience, especially when it is understood as one great artist mourning for another. From the stately, quietly grieving opening piano ostinato, with its haunting refrain of four eighth notes descending by half step, the piece reaches crashing peaks and probes heartbreaking valleys, an extraordinary range of expression for a twenty-year-old composer. Indeed, Rachmaninoff’s mature style seems largely in place.

This piece was a bravura showcase particularly for Gavrylyuk, who dug into the ferocious, concerto-like piano part like a starving man who was just served a seven-course meal. He also brought poetic eloquence and a beautifully singing tone to the opening of the second movement, which is a set of variations on a theme from Rachmaninoff’s The Crag, his first orchestral work. One variation is a dazzling perpetuum mobile for piano (with pizzicato accompaniment), which Gavrylyuk tore through with bat-out-of-hell electricity. Jansen and Thédeen were particularly exquisite in a quiet duet variation. The solo piano introduction to the third movement seemed like a conscious homage to the Tchaikovsky violin concerto; soon after, another passage seemed to prefigure Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C# minor. Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff were both roiling, romantic, and Russian; hearing this piece provided a great opportunity to ponder the former’s influence on the latter.

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Janine Jansen and Friends at Zankel Hall on Saturday, December 9, 2017 at 7:30pm. Janine Jansen, violin; Alexander Gavrylyuk, piano; Torleif Thedéen, cello.

SHOSTAKOVICH Piano Trio No. 1

PROKOFIEV Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major

RACHMANINOFF Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D Minor

Cover: (l. to r.) Janine Jansen (violin), Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano), and Torleif Thedéen (cello) in concert at Zankel Hall; photo: Stefan Cohen.


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