As soloists, splendid; together, superlative

Kristin Lee and her partner, pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine, were a rare pair, supporting and competing with each other in the best way.
Kristin Lee and her partner, pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine, were a rare pair, supporting and competing with each other in the best way. (ARTHUR MOELLER)
Posted: November 08, 2011

Though Astral Artists is in the business of helping promising young talents be all they can be, one can never be sure what form that might take. And while violinist Kristen Lee probably would have given a substantial recital whatever the circumstances Sunday at the Trinity Center for Urban Life, the breakthrough aspect was her duo partnership with pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine.

No pairing since violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Jeremy Denk has exhibited the kind of synergy with which the two both supported and competed with each other in the best possible way. Often, they seemed bent on topping each other, not with sparkle and brilliance (though such qualities were certainly there) but with specificity of insight and of characterization in a big, varied program of Poulenc, Adams, Ysaye, Messiaen, and Brahms.

Moutouzkine's September recital and Lee's performance of Ysaye's Sonata No. 3 for solo violin proved they're wonderful on their own. But as a team, they both become more individualistic - perhaps because they allow each other that extra degree of freedom?

As a result, one's superficial expectations of any given piece were upended. Though Poulenc's Sonata for Violin and Piano is said to reflect his horror over World War I, one rarely hears that element amid the composer's trademark light touch. But the lyrical slow movement took on unusual intensity of concentration with Lee, while Moutouzkine found pockets of dark coloring elsewhere that put everything around it in a different perspective.

The meditative repose that lies beneath most of what Messiaen wrote came with vital tempos and a strong pulse in his Theme et Variations. Though unlike anything I've ever heard, the performance convinced you this is how it should always be. John Adams' Road Movies, a lighter-weight work full of lots of lyrical gestures that reach upward, seemingly to an endless landscape, had all the necessary vitality but also found that one note in any given passage that makes the difference between music that's extremely engaging and seriously witty.

The second theme group of the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3 first movement had a liquid quality that transcended the music's bar lines while maintaining strict control over the momentum, and moved from there into a performance in which every passage had an insistent distinction: Ideas built on one another, but each had a strictly separate message.

Lee, who'll be featured in Astral's Dec. 3 Philadelphia Brahms Festival, was on her own with the Ysaye sonata, a piece with so much surface dazzle you could easily assume that's all there is. Not with her. The music felt so substantial as to withstand comparisons with similarly unaccompanied works by Bach.

A word about the encore, which was Debussy's Clair de Lune. Nothing seemed special at the outset, but the performance (as well as the rest of the concert) was dedicated to Astral's recently deceased artistic director, the beloved Julian Rodescu. One can laud him for his achievements, but the Lee/Moutouzkine performance was an ideal tribute; it went well beyond the piece's pictorial qualities and became a lullaby that showed just what depths of emotion music can contain without the outlines becoming distorted. Few people in the community will be missed as much as Rodescu. But consider what he inspired here.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at

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