Above: violinist Alexi Kenney, photo by Yang Bao
~ Author: Scoresby
Friday December 1st, 2017 - In Carnegie Hall's Weill Hall, the young violinist Alexi Kenney gave his Carnegie Hall Presents debut with pianist Renana Gutman. I had been looking forward to this recital all season as I heard Mr. Kenney in an art gallery in Chelsea a few years ago. Despite his age (he is all of 23), he is an adept programmer and certainly an interesting young violinist to watch. I hadn't heard Ms. Gutman's playing before.
The program began with Mr. Kenney playing alone in Bach Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006. Mr. Kenney's playing was clean, structured, and sweet in the famous Preludio. Bach seems to fit his style of playing well; while his sound is dry, it allows him to pull all the crisp counterpoint out of the music. The Loure was taken at a slower pace, with each phrase clearly annunciated. At the end of each phrase, Mr. Kenney seemed to slow the tempo slightly, emphasizing the motion and dance that structures the music.
Perhaps the most interesting reading was the Gavotte en Rondeau. After each subsequent repeat of the opening phrase, Mr. Kenney would add more complex ornamentation. This made each phrase seem fresh and almost improvisatory without sacrificing any of the music. What a wonderful way to add a personal touch to this music and also enhance the feeling of celebratory music. While he used ornamentation throughout the partita, it was most effective here.
Above: composer George Crumb
After the charming last few movements, the program jumped ahead around 250 years to George Crumb’s Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) for Violin and Piano. It was exciting finally hearing this piece live. While I’ve heard recordings of it before and thumbed through the score, this is spatial music that really only works well in concert. Composed in 1964 after his seminal Five Pieces for Piano and Night Music I, Crumb uses a full palette of extended piano techniques in the piano accompaniment to enhance the atmosphere of the music. Mr. Kenney and Ms. Gutman gave as engaging of a performance as one could wish for from this music. Mr. Kenney’s dry sound served the vast space in the opening movement, while Ms. Gutman’s piano resonated through the hall with providing atmosphere. The chirping of the violin (almost like a bird or bug) sits and sings above the ocean of reverberance from the piano. It is the violin that part that provides the motion and seems to be in conflict with the static nature of the piano’s part.
In Notturno II: Scorrevole, vivace possible the piece gets more motion. Mr. Kenney handle each pizzicato vigorously making his instrument sound percussive while Ms. Gutman alternated between a mechanic sound of out the piano reminiscent of Cowell’s Aeolian Harp and lithe staccato notes. Both had absolute commitment and clarity with this music, making for some of the most interesting chamber music I've heard in a while. One of the most magical parts of the evening was the end of the last movement, here the violin continues its birdlike sounds while the piano produces shivering rumblings from a metal brush against playing the strings. It is a soft atmospheric touch that as the sound decays into silence makes one feel absorbed into Crumb’s world.
Above: pianist Renana Gutman, photo by Carlin Ma
Mr. Kenney and Ms. Gutman let the sound decay, but remained prepared to launch straight into the next work. After the sound had faded, Ms. Gutman began the sweet, minimalist tremolos that open Schubert Violin Fantasy in C Major, D. 934. Because there was no applause and only a brief pause, it felt like a panacea for the all the anxiety in the Crumb. However, the space in the opening Andante molto makes the Schubert feel like the 5th movement of the Crumb – in fact the person who accompanied me (who isn’t as familiar with classical music) thought it was part of the same piece until the second movement of the Schubert began. This was a smart programming choice by Mr. Kenney, making both pieces feel more linked and bridging the 150 year gap. They gave a rousing performance that had the audience give a roaring applause.
The second half of the evening started again with a solo work; this time Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen verlent. This piece is a chaconne-like piece that gains momentum as it goes on, having everything from jazzy wild moments to passionate outbursts. While structurally Mr. Kenney did an excellent job of presenting the piece (one could hear each theme develop and each variation get successfully denser), it sounded like he was missing the wildness that I’ve heard in other live performances. Nonetheless, it was great to hear another great performance of this underplayed work.
The last piece on the program was the Respighi Violin Sonata in B Minor. I’ve never particularly enjoyed this piece, but the duo gave a passionate reading, particularly in the dusky middle section of the movement. Ms. Gutman’s subtle attention to detail here colored the darker parts of this section while Mr. Kenney supplied an ethereal ghostly sound. While I can see why this piece was programmed and I enjoyed both of their playing, the music itself wore on me by the end. The crowd was excited though, and gave a warm (and deserved) standing ovation.
In order to relieve the tension from the end of the Respighi, Mr. Kenney and Ms. Gutman played the “Meditation” from Thaïs.
It’ll be interesting to see how Mr. Kenney’s career develops; he obviously is a formidable musician and has an excellent instinct for programming.