Style, technique, an original approach, a brilliant discography, even an exemplary profile offstage – Midori has it all. What impresses in live performances is her intelligence, her deep understanding of the material and ability to articulate a wide range of visions and voices. This emerged in captivating fashion on Saturday night, in a thoughtful, well-balanced program the violinist presented at the Cleveland Museum of Art with frequent piano accompanist Özgür Aydin. They opened with delicate Debussy, ventured into the dark rigors of Shostakovich, then served up a second half straight from the heart of the classical canon, with standards by Beethoven and Schubert. Even those two contemporaries sounded distinctly different in the duet’s considered interpretations.

Midori © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Midori
© Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Midori’s uncommon facility stems partly from her virtuoso playing skills. But she also devotes a great deal of thought to what she plays, to the point of writing her own program notes. When she gives a recital, Midori doesn’t so much play the pieces as inhabit them, taking on the composer’s persona, period and ideas. Some are a better fit than others – Debussy, for example, is a perfect match for her achingly sweet sound, Shostakovich not so much. But her feel for the material is masterful, no matter what the period or piece.

Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor was a carefully crafted exercise in atmospherics, with Aydin adding some lyrical heft to Midori’s airy string lines, rendered in fine, bright colors that coalesced into brilliant shimmers. The pianist’s liquid flow on the keyboard swelled with occasional dark undercurrents, setting up dazzling violin runs particularly in the third movement.

Just as impressive as the duo’s technical skills was their presentation of the piece as a dialogue, of sorts. Rather than accompany one another, the piano and violin jostle together in a running exchange of motifs and melodies, each seeming to push the other to greater heights. In Aydin and Midori’s hands, the two parts were beautifully linked, played in matching dynamics and tempos while maintaining separate, complementary identities. The revolutionary nature of that structure was clear without becoming overbearing.

The duo gave Shostakovich’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op.134 the sweetest treatment it will ever get, without a single harsh note from the keyboard and even the dissonant violin lines softened to an agreeable luster. Aydin provided a dramatic bottom and a controlled tumult in his solo passages, freeing Midori to focus on the frantic violin runs that rise to a fever pitch in the second movement, then subside to an extended elegy in the third. That final movement is a complex, shifting landscape of moods and textures that the duo handled with aplomb. Overall, if not the fiery exercise that the composer perhaps envisioned, the piece was a brilliant study in sound creation and control, especially the uncharacteristic tension and torment in Midori’s playing.

Özgür Aydin © Özgür Aydin
Özgür Aydin
© Özgür Aydin

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 10 in G major was a surprise: stately, formal, almost reverential in tone and character, like a hymn. Given the flair the duo showed for Shostakovich, Beethoven seemed primed for an exuberant burst of energy. Instead, they went the other way, opting for refined elegance. It was like a throwback to true chamber music, played in a smart but subdued style in an intimate setting where nuance matters more than volume.

That approach made the middle section a showcase for Midori, who noted in the program that it is considered one of the most beautiful movements in Beethoven’s chamber oeuvre; which is exactly how she played it, with a heartbreaking tenderness that few violinists, even with a 1734 Guarneri in their hands, can match.

Schubert’s Rondo Brilliant in B minor was a return to classic form – boldly stated and cleanly played, with not much more than a lyrical quality shading a no-frills interpretation. The flashy finish makes it naturally closer, but on most programs it likely would have been at or near the top, establishing a stylistic baseline before the players ventured into unconventional territory. In this case it was like a coda, a reminder that after all the stylistic excursions, Midori and Aydin were equally capable of playing first-rate, straight-ahead chamber music.

The entire concert could have taken place in a salon, which was refreshing. It’s hard to see a performance nowadays without looking through a clutter of wires, mike stands and other electronic paraphernalia. This was pure – two musicians on stage with their instruments and nothing else. For a performance of this caliber, nothing else was needed.