Impressive and Enjoyable Playing from the Foyle-Štšura Duo

13/07/2016

Lutosławski, Mozart, Debussy, Prokofiev, Franck: Foyle-Štšura Duo (Michael Foyle [violin] & Maksim Štšura [piano]), Wigmore Hall, London, 12.7.2016 (CS)

Lutosławski – Partita (1984)
Mozart – Sonata in E Minor K.304
Debussy – Violin Sonata
Prokofiev – Five Melodies Op.35bis
Franck – Sonata in A major

How exciting and fulfilling it must be for a young musician to walk onto the platform of a hallowed concert hall for the first time to give a solo recital. Violinist Michael Foyle certainly looked pleased to be standing on the stage of the Wigmore Hall before an expectant audience, and remarkably composed and confident too. Not surprisingly so, too, for Foyle and his musical partner, Estonian pianist Maksim Štšura, proved themselves to be superlative musicians and technicians, and delivered a varied and demanding programme with considerable maturity.

This concert was one of the Kirchman Concert Society’s annual series at the Wigmore Hall, which presents outstanding young musicians at the start of their careers. On the evidence of this performance, Foyle and Štšura have starry futures ahead of them, both as individual performers and as chamber musicians. The two instrumentalists bill themselves as a ‘Duo’ and it was immediately clear why: they really are a ‘pair’, and play with astonishing mutual understanding, feeling and responsiveness. Both players performed the entire programme from memory. Štšura frequently turned to make eye-contact with Foyle; the latter’s phrasing was always alert to the nuances in the accompaniment.

Foyle has a lovely clean tone, a fluid bowing action and excellent intonation. In the second half of the recital the sound really opened out and there was interesting variety of colour. Štšura has an extraordinary light touch: he is able to articulate even the most tempestuous passages with textual clarity and fine definition – never once did he overpower the violin, but there was no sense of lack of power or presence. This was fine musicianship. What was sometimes lacking was strong individual characterisation and, more significantly, a spaciousness that would allow the music to breathe. In the Debussy and Franck sonatas, in particular, it sometimes felt that there was undue haste from phrase to phrase, section to section, even between movements. At times the musical arguments needed a little more time to make their mark.   But this will surely come, for the players have the technical means to communicate engagingly.

Foyle seemed especially attuned to the spirit of the two twentieth-century works, by Lutosławski and Prokofiev, which opened the two halves of the recital respectively. Lutosławski’s Partita for violin and piano was composed in 1984 at the request of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug, who gave the first performance of the work the following year. It consists of five movements, with the first (Allegro giusto), third (Lento) and fifth (Presto) separated by short ad libitum interludes. Immediately striking was the Duo’s rich and concentrated tone, though I thought that Foyle might have found a ‘grittier’ G-string sound in places to create a more knotty ‘argument’ with the piano’s contrasting material. Štšura demonstrated his sensitivity to form and expressive phrasing in the questioning conclusion of the movement. In the Largo, as Foyle rose up the E-string – from tiny, delicate gestures to the climactic repeated notes – he revealed a bright, focused gleam. The Presto was frenetically intense. The technical and musical challenges of the ad libitum episodes were assuredly negotiated, and the similar improvisatory passage which occurs in the middle of the final movement provided a welcome relaxation and dreaminess.

Foyle settled comfortably into the lyrical vocalism of Prokofiev’s Five Melodies, playing with a lovely line in the opening Andante and using vibrato sparingly, creating a mood of freshness. The ostinato figurations for piano in following Lento, ma non troppo had an easy lilt, and Foyle’s muted flutterings in the central episode were given strong definition. The Duo exhibited a sure sense of the structure of the Animato, ma non allegro, moving convincingly from the furiously impassioned opening to the more melodic central section, and back again. There was some fleet bowing from Foyle in the Allegretto leggero e scherzando and a charming insouciance at the close, while the final Andante non troppo was energised by the contrast between the violin’s incisiveness and the dry staccato of the piano.

Mozart’s 35 violin sonatas span his life-time – he was just six-years-old when he composed the first and the last dates from 1788 – but only one is in a minor key: the two-movement Sonata in E minor K.304, which was published as part of a set of six sonatas in 1778. There was an apt sombreness about the sparse octaves with which the Allegro begins, but the Duo soon revealed the eloquence and grace of the first theme, while the violin’s staccato formed a light accompaniment to the piano’s rhythmically buoyant second theme. Štšura’s touch was gentle yet the lines were finely etched, and trills were neat and taut. After a reserved development section, the players gave weight to the return and variation of the initial theme giving the recapitulation considerable stature. Štšura led the way in the Tempo di Menuetto, dancing with delightful grace, then offered a mellifluous running accompaniment to Foyle’s statement of the theme which injected increasing animation. The contrasting Trio had an enchanting warmth and mildness, and it was not difficult to see why Alfred Einstein, who is reported to have particularly loved this E Minor Sonata, described the movement as a ‘brief glimpse of bliss’.

I was less enamoured by the Duo’s interpretation of Debussy’s Sonata of 1917. Not that there were not many individual features to admire: the way Štšura used the opening chords to create a compelling rhythmic propulsion; the violin’s fluid quaver-passagework and diamond-edged E-string tone in the opening Allegro vivo; the perfect synchronisation of the two voices in even the most complex, improvisatory episodes. But a certain mystery and musing quality were missing from the central section of the first movement, which was taken at a fast pace and with the violin’s searching, sliding G-string melody overly prominent, to my ears. The ending was exciting but the Intermède: fantasque et leger followed with alacrity, and while the movement was swift and ‘light’ (Štšura’s bass part was incredibly nimble) the phrases were not always sufficiently capricious and whimsical. The Duo launched similarly segue into the Finale: très animé and I’d have liked more expansiveness in the piano’s restatement of the chords which open the sonata; one could not help but be impressed by the technical precision of both players, but the jazzy central episode was in need of a dash more languor and sensuousness.

It would be hard not to enjoy an assured rendition of César Franck’s enduringly popular Violin Sonata in A, and Foyle and Štšura offered an unwaveringly engaging performance, one which highlighted the pianist’s ability to inject urgency into quiet motifs, without undue emphasis, moving naturally from calm to storm, and thereby expertly craft the overall structure. The lyrical evenness of the violin’s melodies was soothing, too: the soft, drawn-out lines in the latter part of the third movement were particularly delicate and beautiful, while the arching melody of the Finale was smooth and silky. However, once again I longed for a bit more space and air. Generally the tempi were fast, and the culminating Allegretto poco mosso did not quite feel, as it should, like the inevitable and satisfying destination of the thematic journey undertaken. As in the second movement of Debussy’s sonata, Franck’s Recitativo ­third movement required more flexibility and a stronger spirit of ‘fantasia’.

Despite these small misgivings, this was certainly impressive and enjoyable playing. The Foyle-Štšura Duo are back in London on Wednesday 27 July, to perform a lunchtime concert of works by Schubert, Prokofiev and Fauré as part of the City Music Foundation’s week-long Summer Residency at the Wallace Collection: Summer Residency at the Wallace Collection. If you’re in town, I would recommend it.

Claire Seymour

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