Personal histories well apart from Pamela Frank's actual performance hovered in the air at the Perelman Theater on Tuesday night. The violinist is a local favorite, a sage professor at the Curtis Institute of Music whose own concert dates have been precious few in recent years.
Musically, she grew up in public. Her Beethoven violin-piano sonatas in the 1980s and early '90s with her father, the late Claude Frank, still burn bright in many a memory. But it's been a decade and half since her last Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital - Beethoven and Brahms with her father in 2001 - and so it wasn't entirely clear what kind of violinist Tuesday night's sold-out audience would hear.
Reassuring, then, that her defining characteristics were intact. The program of four mature Mozart violin sonatas with pianist Emanuel Ax signaled two things: that she was willing to take a chance on some extremely exposed repertoire, and that the mind-meld she achieved with her father would now be supplanted by new influences. Still, Frank came across as still a forcefully human musician who never lets a note or phrase pass without uncovering its greater emotional purpose.
You also might have wondered whether the partnership would click, so unsettled were moments in the first sonata, the C Major, K. 296. But click they did. Ax's beautiful pizzicatolike articulation highlighted a bit of Mozart daring - that piano and violin are constantly switching roles. Whether lead or subservient, the players were of one mind.
What would a totally objective listener have thought of the weaknesses? On this night at least, Frank could not muster a big presence through sound, and her intonation was sometimes questionable. She partook in the recent trend of bow vibrato. At the end of the slow introduction to the G Major, K. 379 sonata, she used a technique in which, instead of creating vibrato with a left-hand finger on the keyboard, the player rocks the bow back and forth over a string. The musical payoff to this, however, was unclear.
But there's so much going on in Frank's playing that, in her own way, she makes a powerful musical-values argument. The encore, the "Siciliano" from Bach's Violin Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, was a study in vulnerability. Those octave jumps in the second movement of the F Major, K. 377 are a routine gesture, unless you've thought about their timing and the shape of the accompanying ornament for as long as the violinist obviously has. Great technique is everywhere these days, wisdom rare, humanity in playing rarer still. Skill was superceded by art, and, happily, Frank is still Frank.