Special to the Eagle

GREAT BARRINGTON - Violinist Ida Kavafian and pianist Peter Serkin go back a long way together, to the 1973 creation of the innovative chamber ensemble Tashi. They were founding members.

Still exploring byways of the repertoire, the duo reunited Sunday afternoon for a recital in the South Berkshire Concerts series at Simon’s Rock. The program, a preview of (and therefore trial run for) their recital this Thursday at Lincoln Center in New York, was demanding for players and audience alike.

The closest things to standard repertoire were lesser-known sonatas by Schubert and Schumann. As for the rest, after a sedate opening with a brief baroque sonata by Tartini, Stefan Wolpe’s violin-piano Sonata and Carl Nielsen’s Prelude and Theme for solo violin made for adventurous fare calling for the skills of musicians at home in many kinds of repertoire.

Despite the standard four movements with innocent-sounding Italian titles, the German-American Wolpe’s 1949 sonata is music that defiantly says, "Listen to me if you dare." Half an hour of atonality, jagged rhythms, clangor, jazz, bits of humor and who knows what else, it pauses in its bristling furies only for a quasi-lyrical interlude midway through the last movement. Then it’s off again.

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Serkin is a Wolpe aficionado, and for a newcomer to the piece, the performance was admirable.


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But after the Wolpe workout, Schubert’s easygoing Sonata, D. 574, seemed almost sugary. And yet the concert-hall performance -- especially in the piano -- seemed to magnify it into something bigger than the parlor music it is.

Nielsen’s 1923 piece for solo violin convincingly showed Kavafian’s virtuoso as well as artistic credentials. The piece takes an original theme through eight attractive variations before landing where it began. The writing owes a lot to Bach’s and Paganini’s solo violin pieces but speaks, in a late romantic style, with a personal accent of its own. Violinists looking for fresh repertoire, take note.

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To close, Kavafian and Serkin brought controlled fires to the romanticism of Schumann’s Sonata No. 2, Opus 121. This is a late work that, like much of Schumann’s output late in life, has good ideas but doesn’t know how to develop them, and so comes across as disjointed. The performance leaned toward the formal rather than passionate.

Serkin, who lives in Richmond, is generous with his performances for Berkshire organizations; he has appeared at Simon’s Rock three times before. The audience on a beautiful Easter afternoon was not large but it heard two of the country’s premier chamber musicians show why they hold that status.