The Soundings concert series opened its season Tuesday evening at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, with violinist Midori and pianist Özgür Aydin. Although the series typically focuses more on contemporary music, Midori offered the program she’s been touring with in celebration of the 30th anniversary of her debut, and it did not disappoint. She and Mr Aydin presented the three Beethoven sonatas written in A major, interspersed with a pair of works from the 20th century.

“Experimentation” seemed to be the idea linking the five works on the program. The years immediately before and after 1800 saw Beethoven gaining recognition through his early works, then subsequently reinventing himself in nearly everything he published, striving constantly to achieve new sonorities and musical forms. The development evident between his Violin Sonatas Op. 12 no. 2 and Op. 47, “Kreutzer”, for instance, is almost too extreme to believe, given that they were written a mere five years apart. This was a time of personal and professional upheaval such as very few other composers experienced; in addition to such rapid compositional advances, his deafness was worsening, and with it, his psychological well-being. Hearing the three A major violin sonatas in close succession gave a fascinating overview of these turbulent times.

Similarly, Webern’s Four Pieces for violin and piano mark the arrival of their composer to maturity and the achievement of his own distinct voice. Two years after completing his studies under Arnold Schoenberg, Webern was already developing in these pieces the spare, pointillist style that would come to be associated with his name. George Crumb has frequently experimented as well, but not quite with the same purpose of refining a singular compositional voice. Rather, many of Crumb’s works are unique unto themselves, the products of an ever-inquisitive musical mind. As with many contemporary composers who heavily employ extended techniques (unconventional methods of sound production), repeating himself is simply not an option. His Four Nocturnes “Night Music II” are, according to Crumb, a second “essay in the quiet nocturnal mood of [his] Night Music I for soprano, keyboard, and percussion”. The Four Nocturnes take this general mood as a point of departure en route to creating a wholly independent work for violin and piano.

Hearing the two more modern works sandwiched among the Beethoven sonatas created an effect analogous to what would have occurred at a concert in Beethoven’s time, when divertimenti or other isolated works were played between the individual movements of large-scale works like symphonies and concerti. It also served to cleanse the aural palette, priming listeners for a fresh look at a slightly older Beethoven in each successive sonata. Such extreme juxtapositions only truly work when performers commit themselves fully to bringing each work to life, and the commitment on Tuesday – at least one end of it – was there the whole evening.

Midori brought the same level of intensity and a wide dynamic and timbral range to all three Beethoven sonatas, letting the differences in style and scope speak for themselves. Mr Aydin seemed to allow greater use of the pedal in the two later sonatas, which may have been intended to reflect the development of the piano itself at the turn of the 19th century – many fortepianos and other early keyboard instruments did not have pedals, and the overall sound was much more intimate than a modern concert grand – or else it was simply an adjustment to the bone-dry acoustic; with shades drawn over the windows and walls, the sound was in constant danger of losing all warmth. As for the above-mentioned intensity of expression, Mr Aydin played the perfect foil to Midori with a cool, composed demeanor and broad sense of phrasing; the bright spots in his otherwise uneven and uninspired performance came at moments of respite, such as the smooth transitions in the first movement of the Op. 12 sonata.

Even though I felt things to be a bit over the top at times, Midori’s active interpretation was backed up by sincerity and unimpeachable playing. These two qualities served her “Kreutzer” Sonata well, but she curiously took a more pensive approach to this work. I can understand the desire to maintain dramatic pacing in a piece of such large scale, but there’s a visceral, brutal quality to much of the first movement that I missed in Midori and Mr Aydin’s playing. Nevertheless, this was an evening with many riveting moments. That Beethoven sounded revolutionary even when placed alongside avant-garde music – Crumb’s Nocturnes ended with Mr Aydin swiping a percussion brush across the middle-register strings of the piano, and this was followed immediately by “Kreutzer” – was evidence that, mixed signals notwithstanding, these artists were doing something right.

***11