On Sunday, November 5th, Mistral performed for a sold out literary-themed concert—In Search of Marcel Proust—at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline. This was the last of three performances held over the weekend.
The idea for the concert came from flutist Julie Scolnik’s (Mistral’s Artistic Director) revelatory experience reading Proust’s epic, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (In Search of Lost Time), while studying abroad as a youth in Paris. She notes Proust’s genius for describing sensory experience of memory: “But most astonishing were his descriptions of music, and the visceral experience of listening to it.” She explained that Proust often describes a particular, “little phrase of music” throughout his novel and writes of a fictitious composer, Vinteuil. In personal correspondence, Proust wrote that this character was symbolic of specific composers, notably César Franck, whose works deeply influenced him. For over a century, scholars have speculated much over which composers and works Proust referred to. Mistral’s concert was conceived in order to shed light on some of these musical inspirations. Before each piece the performers read extracts from the novel, talked about its author, and shared amusing anecdotes regarding the composers.
Beginning with a sensual arrangement of Chopin’s Étude, Op. 25, No. 7 in C# Minor, cellist Jan Muller-Szeraws spun the audience into a voluptuous web of sound, as pianist Sophie Scolnik-Brower led the two instruments’ delicate dance. Excerpts from two violin sonatas then grasped hold of the crowd. Fauré’s passionate Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13 I: Allegro Molto: Sarita Kwok’s ardent violin merged gorgeously with Max Levinson’s piano. Chromatic, fervid violin runs extolled an agonizing beauty as a rumbling piano augmented phrase endings sung by Ms. Kwok. The final impassioned forte left off with an electrified feeling of anticipation.
Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major III Recitativo-Fantasia and IV Allegro (arranged for flute) followed. Clear, even tones from Scolnik’s flute shaded dramatic opening notes with great dynamic sensibility. Scolnik-Brower’s dulcet piano arpeggios embraced the flute’s wild mood changes throughout the piece.
Then, Mr. Levinson played Liszt’s transcription for solo piano of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde. His enduring smile betrayed an obvious pleasure while playing the robust piece. It crescendoes to a violent forcefulness but smoothly tapers out, replacing its storm with placidity. Levinson’s substantial artistry revealed a maddeningly creative spirit. His exceptionally visceral, nearly disconcertedly passionate tour de force was honored with two ovations—the second one a standing.
The first half ended with Beethoven’s String quartet No. 15, Op. 132 Molto Adagio. Beginning slow and contemplative, like a prayer, it captures the composer’s sense of grace following a great convalescence. He wrote it to thank “the deity” after recovering. Suddenly, all four instruments pulse in unison, rising in volume, expressing what could only be a great reawakening. This mystifying, watershed moment discloses yet again, a painful beauty, something akin to a birth. Ms. Kwok’s violin splendidly phrases the melody, imparting caressing trills upon the listener. A rich cello line pours forth. All four players (including Qing Hou, violin and Lawrence Neuman, viola) breathe into one endless phrase after another, creating waves in what amounted to a truly fantastic performance: artful, soothing, sublime. Beethoven would have smiled.
Intermission treated the audience to complementary madeleines, an homage to an early moment in Proust’s novel in which the narrator’s childhood memories are triggered by tasting this pastry dunked in tea. This delightful bonus put all in a sumptuous mood for Debussy’s Apres-Midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) for flute and piano. Scolnik and Scolnik-Brower’s soothing interpretation created an intimate portrait of the famed symphonic poem.
The final piece of the night was Franck’s brutally passionate Piano Quintet in F Minor. Levinson explained that this piece caused a scandal when it premiered because it became evident that it was meant as a dedication to a young woman the composer had fallen in love with. The pianist who premiered the piece, Camille Saint-Saëns, was also in love with her. After a successful performance he left the stage in anger, as did Franck’s wife, who burst out of the hall in protest of its passionate innuendo.
It begins with an emotional outburst of turbulent crescendoes. A motive of lento piano followed by dramatic strings repeats again and again. Movement one ends on a somber note with dark piano sonorities. The second movement has a questioning, reaching tone. It is more subdued than the first. A striking, dull cello bow sounds in the midst of the other players. It is galvanizing to the point of appearing just nearly errant. But this paves the way for imploring, tortured violin and viola to enter and underscore the movement’s yearning tone. A dreadful mood expressed by the piano along with two pulsed plucks on the violins end the movement. This creates an unresolved feeling. The third movement is nonetheless electrified, violins bowing fast with anticipation. A feeling of subterfuge dominates. It is as though the music strives to escape itself. Or perhaps it is pursuing a passionate chase. It culminates in a huge bang and the audience literally roars into a standing ovation. They pour out of St. Paul’s reinvigorated.