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A violin that sings

SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS
GEORGE GELLES, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
January 12, 2009

Nurit Pacht is a terrific violinist, and in her demi-recital on Friday evening, presented by Camerata Pacifica in the Music Academy’s Hahn Hall, she gave two terrific performances by two neglected composers.

Prokofiev neglected? More than a half-century after his death, he’s more respected than understood as a man, and more discussed than performed as a composer. We still have an incomplete appreciation of the artistic tensions that led him to live his life as much in the West as in the East, of the political tensions that led to frustration and compromise, of the personal tensions that informed his home life.

His music seems a repertory staple, and this is true for about a half-dozen works: the early concertos for violin and piano, the Fifth Symphony and the “Classical” Symphony, the “Romeo and Juliet” ballet and a couple of film scores. The operas are just coming into view, most of the symphonies are ignored and the chamber music is underperformed.

Which is why it was gratifying to hear Ms. Pacht perform the Sonata for Violin and Piano, Prokofiev’s Opus 80 and his most substantial work for this combination of instruments. Like much of the composer’s better music, the Sonata is stunning both for its intimate aspects as well as for moments of overt theatricality.

In the opening movement, for instance, a beautiful effect is achieved when the violin negotiates acres of scales over multiple octaves, playing extremely softly against slow chords in the keyboard. This tracery is heard in the background, as if in a dream, and its impact is magical. In Ms. Pacht’s performance, deep feeling trumped sheer virtuosity. Sheer virtuosity prevailed, however, in the following fast movement, marked “allegro brusco,” which is brusque and barbaric at its outset, but lyrical and pure Prokofiev as it proceeds.

It, too, was rendered with real feeling by Ms. Pacht. She’s a complete violinist who technically does it all. Even better, she’s an exceptional artist who feels and phrases music beautifully. She approaches her scores with the utmost respect — nothing is tawdry — and her performances are exemplary.

Following the Prokofiev, she excelled in Karol Szymanowski’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Opus 9 (talk about neglected composers). Though he properly can be called the father of 20th century Polish music, Szymanowski is virtually unknown today, which is shameful. He didn’t compose much, but his music at its best (as in the opera “King Roger”) is prime.

The Violin Sonata, an early work, is decidedly not prime though. It opens with a stunning effect — a musical exclamation point in the form of the mother of all downbows — but it never sings in the composer’s true voice. Though crafted with professionalism, it’s skimpy on substance. You hear myriad influences — French music here, German music there — but you can’t discern an individual, authentic style, which would develop over the ensuing decades. Nonetheless, Ms. Pacht showed the piece in the best light possible, performing with conviction.

Anna Polonsky was the accompanist, or the “collaborative artist” in the politically correct parlance of the day, and on her own she performed short works by Beethoven and Debussy. If a distinctive personality was wanting as a soloist, she was an able partner when working with Ms. Pacht.