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For its latest contemporary music concert, on Monday evening, La Maison Française returned to the violinist who inaugurated the series (with Eric Le Sage in 2005), Nicolas Dautricourt. Partnering with his countryman Dominique Plancade, Dautricourt presented a fascinating survey of French music of the 20th century. Like the world premiere of Sanctuary at the National Gallery the day before, the concert was free and the embassy's auditorium encouragingly full. This shows the importance of what Cultural Attaché Roland Celette does by sponsoring these free concerts, exposing leading French performers and composers to American audiences. In his gracious introduction, Celette mentioned that the embassy is seeking to start an academy to bring together French and American musicians devoted to contemporary music.
Violinist Nicolas Dautricourt, photo by Guy Vivien
The three pillars of this delightful and innovative program were by the recognized greats of the French 20th century: Debussy, Poulenc, and Messiaen. The Poulenc violin sonata, from 1943, was the only example of the genre that survived the composer's rigorous self-editing, after he had destroyed two violin sonatas two decades earlier. This performance veered between a more dissonant, frantic tone and a calmer opposing theme straight out of the Parisian cabaret in the first movement. Reading from his score, Dautricourt recited the Garcia Lorca poem, translated into French, by which Poulenc, composing the piece during the Nazi occupation of France, expressed solidarity against fascism. The second movement, an evocation of Spain, was a muted and tragic cantillation. By contrast, the third movement was a rapid-fire toccata, ending with a slow melody tortured with dissonance.
Federico Garcia Lorca, Six Strings:
makes dreams weep.
The sobs of lost souls
escape through its round
And like the tarantula,
it weaves a large star
to trap the sighs
floating in its black
At the end of the recital was the Debussy violin sonata, the 1917 work that was the last the composer finished (captured in a lovely recording recently by Dora Schwarzberg and Martha Argerich). As in the Poulenc sonata, this piece revealed the dazzling technique and control of dynamics on display from pianist Dominique Plancade, matching Dautricourt's fluid interpretation with murmuring arpeggiation at the embassy's Bösendorfer. The highpoint of the concert was at the end of the first half, however, with a revelatory reading of Olivier Messiaen's Theme and Variations for violin and piano from 1932. The theme is a fairly traditional miniature, with a simple accompaniment, leading to a set of driven variations, with the melody transformed by being splashed with bitonal chords and singing through clouds of shrieking birds, finally to emerge into a hall of bell-like, treble-dominated tonal chords.
Throughout, though impressive, Dautricourt's technique strained slightly at the most demanding moments, with some imprecision in off-the-string passages and an E string that did not always glisten but pinched off its tone here and there. He is a forceful player, who sawed through a lot of horsehair over the course of two hours. The other selections included a piece for unaccompanied violin by André Jolivet and Nicolas Bacri's homage to Jolivet. Jolivet's Incantation "Pour que l'image devienne symbole", from 1937, was more varied, with some whispered, dream-like sul ponticello effects. A mirroring set of solo violin pieces by Karol Beffa and François Sarhan, from the 21st century, was found in the second half, with Beffa's neo-tonal style balanced by Sarhan's more dissonant approach. The second half opened with a piece for piano only, Maurice Ohana's Sonate monodique, a 1945 experimentation with extended writing for unisons and octaves, which again revealed Plancade's flair for the dramatic and intelligence in picking apart complicated forms. After the Debussy, the performers treated the audience to Jascha Heifetz's arrangement of Debussy's song Beau soir. A beautiful evening, indeed.
Opera Lafayette returns to La Maison Française for a concert called A Rococo Noël, with the Four Nations Ensemble and Julie Boulianne (December 2, 7:30 pm).
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.