The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum closed out this year's concert season on April 30 with a performance by two of Boston's star musicians. Violinist James Buswell and pianist Max Levinson '93, whose personal interpretive styles differ enormously, offered a program of Bartok's Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano and Beethoven's Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 96.
Buswell immediately demonstrated his precise bow control in the Bartok. He played the opening with rough, fervent strokes but reverted to smooth, effortless attacks in the slower sections of the Allegro apassionato. Meanwhile, Levinson supplied equally sharp attacks while staying within a drier, less flamboyant idiom than Buswell's.
The sound of Buswell's instrument appeared surprisingly soft in many unmuted passages, lacking the strident clarity brought to Bartok by Szigeti or Szeryng. At times, Levinson overpowered Buswell, though the violinist appeared at the edge of his instrument's capacity. But Levinson efforts were clearly earnest; his rejection of bravado perfectly suited the work.
Buswell contributed his whole body to the effort of the movement, pumping up and down during frequent string changes. The prickliness of Levinson's accompaniment extended even into softest of the movement's intricate modulations. In the Allegro's more surreal moments, he appeared as an icy rain falling down on Buswell's striving persona.
The Sonata's Adagio brought a completely introspective tone to the performance. Levinson's lines seemed to come from a different world as they mingled with Buswell's wide vibrato. The music couldn't help but acquire a very private quality, hardly the kind that reaches out to an audience; the listeners could not readily participate in the experience, except by observing. Many became restless during and especially after the movement, but Buswell quieted them with a nod to Levinson, whose crashing entrance gave an almost attacca start to the last movement.
In the Allegretto, Buswell happily obliged all of Bartok's fantastic rambunctiousness. Towards the middle of the movement, in a mostly pizzacato section, he appeared struggling on the border between ardor and desperation. Meanwhile, Levinson conveyed the tremendous weight of the opposing force without any unwieldiness; he again showed his incredible touch during the movement's few moments of soft respite.
The Beethoven, which probably should have begun the program, opened with an irresistible feeling of momentum. Unfortunately, this motion rarely abated for moments of musical expression. Levinson sometimes made natural gestures with time, but Buswell pushed incessantly onwards. This situation was most manifest in the last movement, which the duo plowed through without moderation.
The Sonata's Adagio espressivo certainly captured a more intimate feeling, but the playing was emotionally unremarkable. The high point of the Beethoven came in the Scherzo. where Buswell's devil-may-care boldness struck a wonderful contrast to Levinson's filigreed lines. Here, the interplay of the instruments finally reached the same heights it had achieved in the Bartok.
The Gardner's next season opens on September 24, when the museum's own chamber orchestra will be joined by conductor and Harvard's Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music Emeritus Leon Kirchner for Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto and Mozart's Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491. Levinson is scheduled to return as soloist in the Mozart.