When it was announced that the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen had been given carte blanche to curate a series of performances during the 2017-2018 Carnegie Hall season, many music lovers were taken by surprise. Jansen is far from being the same household name in the United States as the world-acclaimed Daniil Trifonov, the other classical artist honored with a similar assignment. Listening just once to Jansen’s playing, full of quiet intensity, it becomes quickly clear that she is not the type of virtuoso throwing around fireworks and leaving the public in awe. She is essentially a musician’s musician. Although her technique is immaculate, it doesn’t define her. There is a radiance in her sound, never contrived, emerging with force from the innermost strata of her soul. Both as a soloist and as a chamber musician, Jansen has a formidable gift for collaboration, for listening to other interprets play and always responding adequately.

Janine Jansen
© Richard Termine

Her interpretative qualities were abundantly displayed in the first concert in her “Perspectives” series, a chamber music evening in the underground Zankel Hall. Several distinguished guests – clarinetist Martin Fröst, cellist Thorleif Thedéen and pianist Lucas Debargue – were invited to perform in relatively rarely played works composed in the first half of the 20th century.

It is difficult to believe that Bela Bartók’s music could be the most accessible one in any performance, but so it seemed. Commissioned by violinist Joseph Szigeti and clarinetist Benny Goodman in 1938, the three movement Contrasts is Bartók’s only chamber composition featuring a woodwind instrument. The composer had found at this point his unique voice, absorbing various influences, from Brahms to Debussy and Stravinsky and anchoring his music in the Hungarian and Balkan folklore he had thoroughly studied. The syncopated rhythms, exotic scale combinations and rhapsodic nature of the original songs are still discernable here, even if fully integrated into a Western musical idiom. The title Contrasts doesn’t only refer  to the distinct and sometimes clashing timbres of the clarinet and the violin, but also to the opposing moments of devilish, frightening intensity in the outward sections and the surreal calm characterizing the second movement, Pihenö (Relaxation), a typical Bartókian night music. The cohesiveness characterizing the dialogue between Fröst and Jansen was amazing, especially in the treacherously rapid segments marked by constant rhythmic changes. In a trio where piano was not meant to be the equal of the other two instruments, Lucas Debargue provided a discreet and precise accompaniment to the main characters’ duels and reconciling dances. Oddly enough, the piano was not the driving force in any of the evening’s pieces. The young and very talented French pianist made the best of the situation, playing with poise and energy.

Janine Jansen, Lucas Debargue and Martin Fröst
© Richard Termine

Debussy’s and Scriabin’s shadows were almost palpable in Szymanowski’s Mythes for violin and piano. Inspired by Greek mythology, the composition is, with few exceptions – the piano mimicking the whispering of water in La Fontaine d’Arethuse, the violin suggesting Pan’s flute in Dryades et Pan – not a programmatic opus but one evoking the perfumes of a legendary Orient. Jansen transcended with ease all the challenges imbuing the music with a fantastical palette of colors and effects, bringing to the fore the combination of fragility and hypnotism that characterizes the opus, especially the last of the three movements.

A vision of a world full of love following the Apocalypse, composed in a German prisoners’ camp under miserable circumstances, Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps is a formidable example of modernism in music. The four outstanding musicians strived to underline the formal inventiveness characterizing this piece, from the lack of traditional developments, to the expanding and contracting rhythmic patterns, so difficult to synchronize across players, in Praise to the Eternity of Jesus, to Messiaen’s overall refusal to be constrained by the conventional representation of time as a linear dimension. Like his interventions in Bartók, Martin Fröst’s interpretation of the Abîme des oiseaux was mind-blowing. His total immersion in the musical stream, his ability to produce a tone growing out nothingness are unparalleled. Thedéen’s playing of Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus, was equally full of richness of tone and truly heartfelt. In the concluding eights movement, Louange à l’Immoratalité de Jésus, Jansen displayed her full lyrical palette and her obvious passion for this music.

Janine Jansen, Lucas Debargue, Torleif Thedéen and Martin Fröst
© Richard Termine

There was a time when a piano was always available in burghers’ houses and amateur musicians would spend weekend afternoons making music and feeling exhilarated afterwards. I had I had an impression of déjà-vu listening to Janine Jansen and her guests at Carnegie Hall: friends enjoying playing music together, in an intimate environment, neither of them parading their technical prowess.