An appreciative audience packed the Great Hall at St. John’s College on Nov. 19 for a deeply rewarding recital by two musicians of unusual perspicacity: the violinist Stefan Jackiw and the pianist Max Levinson. First, a word about that audience. Some familiar faces from music-loving circles were to be seen, but as the concert hour arrived, the hall filled up with a steady stream of college students, who through the entire concert displayed a level of rapt attention that is rarely encountered in the course of anyone’s concert-going. They apparently had not received the memo stating that their age group’s indifference to classical music generates despair about the field’s future. St. John’s students are not in every way typical of the world at large, to be sure, and since they are unusually well trained in the art of listening to other people, it’s not a stretch to understand why they are similarly open to paying attention to worthwhile things being expressed through nonverbal means. Listening in their presence was uplifting.
Jackiw and Levinson offered a smartly conceived evening of four serious works for violin and piano: Mozart’s A-Major Sonata (K.293d), Copland’s Violin Sonata, Lutoslawski’s Subito (Suddenly), and Brahms’ Third Sonata (op. 108). The duo struck a distinctive balance in the Mozart, with the piano rather overshadowing the violin in the dynamics department. In retrospect it became clear that this had been a conscious decision, one that was historically grounded on the fact that Mozart’s so-called “violin sonatas” were conceived as — and, in this case, first published as — Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte With Accompaniment by a Violin. This chosen balance proved specific to the piece, and it allowed relatively free rein to Levinson’s extroverted, full-toned, yet fluid musical personality. As Mozart’s variations unrolled, one marveled at the inbred musicality of the pianist’s phrasing — not just the arch of a full musical idea but also the “little events” that represent the individual words of a musical sentence.
Jackiw is a more restrained instrumentalist, capable of dazzling but apparently not much interested in doing so. Elegance is his watchword, and he backs it up with an exceptionally attractive tone and spot-on intonation. The mind jumped to “connoisseur” fiddlers of an earlier era. His poise in the Mozart reminded me of the patrician Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux, and his committed precision in Copland’s Sonata suggested the Polish (later Mexican) virtuoso Henryk Szeryng. The Copland, written in 1943 and not often programmed, is uncharacteristically “Apollonian” for its composer but nonetheless incorporates allusions to American folk music, if filtered through the prism of Bartók. Lutoslawski’s Subito, from 1992 (two years before the composer’s death), began and ended with