Monday, December 9, 2013


Cleveland Institute of Music
December 4

World-class music from two star player/pedagogues.

From the moment that Ivan Ženatý and Sandra Shapiro walked onstage at Mixon Hall on Wednesday night, it was clear that the audience was in for something special. Coming off a six-city American and European tour, the duo was the picture of sophisticated elegance, with Ženatý in formal black tie and tails, and Shapiro resplendent in a glittery silver-grey evening gown.

Their music was even more impressive. Ženatý is a virtuoso Czech violinist who embodies the Central European sound – warm, full, richly emotional and technically precise. He plays with a regal bearing and beautiful purity of tone enhanced by his instrument, a 1740 Guarneri. Shapiro is a piano prodigy and Juilliard graduate who imparts a bright, sensitive quality to everything she touches, a skilled chamber music performer who plays with intelligence and grace. Both are seasoned performers on the international circuit as well as faculty members at CIM.

The caliber of the music they play together is world-class, though in some ways their recital was equally interesting as a demonstration of how to play duets. Ženatý is a punctilious, intensely focused performer who will not start while there is the slightest noise or distraction – not as an ego exercise, but as a show of respect for the music. He and Shapiro have distinct voices that fit together seamlessly when they play, matching surges of expression and nuances of phrasing and tone, or opening up space for each other to dash off a dazzling line. Their sound is airtight and commanding, with sharp, precise beginnings and endings on every piece.

Their opening selection was a gift: Dvořák’s Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano (Op. 75), music that runs in every Czech player’s blood. Ženatý rendered it with drama and flair, putting passionate fervor in the familiar “Allegro Maestoso” melody, and tugging at the heartstrings in the “Allegro appassionato.” Shapiro provided propulsive rhythms and an array of subtle colors, adding tasteful accents to the music. Their dreamy fadeout in the closing “Larghetto” was soft as a whisper.

Textbook duet work.
Schumann’s Sonata in D minor for Violin and Piano (Op. 121) offered both a visual and musical study. Standing next to Shapiro, Ženatý would lean in to draw out extended notes and phrases with her, driving their interpretation of the piece and keeping it in perfect synch. Their tandem work was riveting, but the divergent melodies were even more compelling, linked together so intricately that they spoke with one voice. Overall, the shading and expression were so polished that it sounded like the two had been playing together for years.

The second half also opened with a taste of Czech music, Smetana’s Z domoviny (From the Homeland). It is not a very difficult or flashy piece, but Ženatý and Shapiro played it with such invigorating spirit that a split-second after their rousing, pulsating finish, a student in the audience exclaimed “Wow!” He wasn’t being a wise-ass, just voicing the open-mouthed astonishment everyone in the room felt. 

The concluding work, Strauss’ demanding Sonata in E flat major for Violin and Piano, was uncommonly fluid (especially for Strauss, who tends to be harsh) and authoritative, with every single note carrying emotional weight and quality. The piano runs its own way in much of the piece, highlighting Shapiro’s superb technical skills and liquid touch on the keyboard.

Presumably CIM audiences are the most educated in town, and this one called Ženatý and Shapiro back for four encores – something this critic has never seen at Mixon Hall before. Rachmaninoff, Dvořák, Strauss – and there would have been more if an obviously drained Ženatý hadn’t announced “last one” for a Schumann finale, two and a half hours after the concert began.

Another thing this critic never heard at Mixon Hall before: an absolute, almost reverent silence between movements. Ženatý expectations for a quiet, attentive audience clearly had something to do with that. But ultimately it was about the music, and the respect it commands when it’s played by serious professionals.

For more on Ivan Ženatý:

For more on Sandra Shapiro:

Photos: CIM/LDennison

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