It takes courage to offer a program of music for violin and piano by Francis Poulenc, Charles Ives, and George Enescu, as the Weilerstein Duo did in their free concert at Jordan Hall Monday evening. And greater courage still to choose works born in bleak times. Ives’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 was composed during World War I, Enescu’s “Impressions d’enfance’’ and Poulenc’s Sonata for Violin and Piano during World War II.
Violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein - who with their daughter, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, make up the Weilerstein Trio - started with the Poulenc. Composed in 1943 and dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca, the piece opens with an “Allegro con fuoco’’ and closes with a “Presto tragico.’’ Even the Intermezzo middle movement, “Très lent et calme,’’ is hardly tranquil. The piano is on the run from the beginning, as if the devil were on its tail, before falling into a march rhythm; the violin seems demented.
The Intermezzo, chimes and organ stops, ends in a question; the Presto has an insouciant, almost jaunty air, with echoes of Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra,’’ before it’s brought up short. Here the Allegro was frenzied, almost desperate. In the Intermezzo, the piano tried to create a safe haven and failed. And the Presto was short on humor, haunted before the crisis as well as after.
Ives considered his Third Violin Sonata a reversion, “an attempt to please the soft-ears and be good,’’ he once said. All the same, he’s reveling in his usual hymn-tune permutations, ringing changes on “Need’’ and “Beulah Land’’ in the first movement, “There’ll Be No Dark Valley’’ and “The Beautiful River’’ in the second, and “Need’’ again in the third. And the themes are more of a destination than a point of departure. The Weilersteins’ was a performance of difficult grace, with no attempt to please the “soft-ears’’ beyond the tender back-and-forth of “Beulah Land’’ in the first-movement refrains.
Enescu’s picture of childhood, in 10 scenes, is a good deal less extroverted than, say, Schumann’s “Kinderszenen.’’ An old beggar asks for alms, a stream burbles in the garden, a canary sings in its cage and is answered by a cuckoo clock. The second half is a kind of bedtime suite: lullaby, cricket on the hearth, moonlight streaming in, wind in the chimney, thunder and lightning, and then dawn. The Weilersteins caught Enescu’s mood of pain; even the concluding sunrise was hard won.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.