Nikolaj Znaider Aims For Dramatic Extremes in a Celebrity Outing


Beethoven, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Brahms: Nikolaj Znaider (violin), Robert Kulek (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 4.2.2018. (GN)

Nikolaj Znaider © Lars Gundersen

Nikolaj Znaider © Lars Gundersen

Beethoven – Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major Op.30 No.3
Prokofiev – Sonata for Violin and Piano in D major Op.94a
Shostakovich – Four Preludes for Violin and Piano from Op.34 (trans. Dmitri Tsyganov)
Brahms – Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor Op.108

It is has been over a decade since violinist Nikolaj Znaider last performed for the Vancouver Recital Society, and he certainly returned as very much of a celebrity. In fact, this concert often seemed like a ‘celebrity show’, the violinist tossing humorous asides to the audience, taking the full house under his wing and then dazzling it with his stunning passage work, silken lyrical lines and passionate bursts of power. This could hardly fail to seduce. While Znaider has launched his conducting career in earnest these days, it is wonderful to be reminded of what a great violinist he is. I much enjoyed his recordings of the Elgar Violin Concerto (with Sir Colin Davis) and the Brahms Violin Sonatas (with Yefim Bronfman) but, in those instances, it was the purity of his tone and dramatic/lyrical line that was most noteworthy. This concert was more unbuttoned, more a study of ‘the art of the violin’, with Znaider consistently pushing his instrument to the extremes of both delicacy and romantic ardour.

Of the three violin sonatas performed with pianist Robert Kulek, the Prokofiev probably fared best, though all the readings had little indulgences that one might expect in a relatively casual concert of this type but not in the recording studio. The extra romantic adornment of the lovely cantabile theme that opens this sonata was probably not necessary, nor was the demonstrative surge of passion at its restatement – but what a glorious flow of lyrical beauty and strength. Such passages illustrated a characteristic Znaider trademark: seeking a very long lyrical line and pushing it out continuously through a carefully-judged crescendo. This worked quite well, ultimately, with the structural elegance displayed in between, and was aided by the alertness and precision of Kulek’s piano. The detailing at the opening of the Scherzo was impressive, as was the natural ease in the violinist’s playing later on. The Andante’s presentation struck me as more on the public side, though the violinist’s purity in the pianissimo passage at the end was striking. The finale found exactly the right energy at its close, even if it was somewhat emotionally overburdened earlier on. It was an enjoyable performance, yet if one believes that the composer’s characteristic spikiness and sharpness of utterance underpin this work, then Znaider’s desire to push to more fulsome terrain had its limitations.

The treatment of the Beethoven Sonata was slightly more controversial.  It had an appealing refinement at times but still remained a traditional big-boned treatment, like those from Perlman, Stern or Zukerman. The opening Allegro exuded a nice energy and ultra-clean attack from the violinist, though I thought Kulek was a little plain. What stood out were all the lyrical retreats to pianissimo, which might have been probing if fully invested emotionally, but came off more as ‘effects’ that altered the music’s flow. One had to admire Znaider’s immense skill in etching phrases at such soft volumes, yet this became sort of a recurring habit: the same type of prettification carried on to the following Tempo di Minuetto, typically contrasting with passages of strong romantic sentiment. Overall, this movement emerged as rather burdened, failing to sustain much natural motion. The closing Allegro, on the other hand, was thrilling at its quicker pace, full of energy and virtuosity, though not particularly subtle. I am not sure those who like authentic or more regally traditional Beethoven performances would warm to this approach, but those who have recently enjoyed Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis might.

After four brief transcriptions from Shostakovich’s Preludes Op. 34 – little more than salon pieces in this form – the Brahms Third Violin Sonata closed the recital. The interpretation of this sonata was especially interesting because it bore so little resemblance to the violinist’s highly-regarded RCA recording with Yefim Bronfman a decade ago. There, a wistful, restrained lyricism prevailed in a reading of notable sensitivity and beauty; in fact, some critics regarded it as too restrained. Perhaps as a corrective, this performance pushed demonstratively forward with great romantic ardour from the outset. In fact, the violinist opened out so many swells and bulges in the phrasing that the piece might have reached full emotional saturation before the opening movement had finished. The accent on emotional effects certainly increased the tangibility and force of the work and gave it a stronger luster, yet the obvious qualification was that it made the piece more structurally opaque and ‘over the top’. The same approach was carried through the middle movements too: the violinist’s massive outpouring in the middle of the Adagio had to be heard to be believed. The duo then launched into the finale with great gusto and brought down the house with their tremendous drive and fire.

Now, this is what a celebrity concert is all about: here was a great violinist and his partner at full throttle – for all to see! Perhaps one might ponder how Znaider changed his thinking on this sonata so radically in a decade, but one should not be fooled: the performance was mainly an ‘art of the violin’ show, possibly giving vent to the violinist’s secret desire to let it all out with an audience thousands of miles from the musical capitals, free from recording companies and (hopefully) nasty music critics. It was indeed an unforgettable experience: the violinist revealed a much stronger tonal and expressive palette – and more sheer ‘wildness’ – than I had previously seen. It is redeeming to see a violinist known for such fastidious taste and tonal purity having a little extra fun. London audiences would likely never receive such a performance.

I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing another side of this wonderful and multifaceted artist. The Hungarian Dances began, a sentimental Heifetz miniature wafted through the air – and the lights slowly went out, leaving only the residual haze from the Brahms sonata. If only it were filmed…

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different for on

Print Friendly


Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews


Season Previews

  • NEW! World Premiere by Novaya Opera of Pushkin – The Opera in the Theatre in the Woods __________________________________
  • NEW! Dartington International Summer School & Festival’s 70th __________________________________
  • NEW! The Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018 Blossom Music Festival __________________________________
  • UPDATED! The Glyndebourne Opera Cup and Glyndebourne in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! LA Opera’s 2018/19 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Buxton Festival 2018 and its New CEO __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2018/19 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Piccadilly Chamber Music Series in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera and More in Buenos Aires in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Gloucester Choral Society’s Hubert Parry’s Centenary Celebrations in May 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The 2018 Lucerne Summer Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! Contemporary Music from Manchester’s Psappha in 2017-18 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! I Musicanti’s Alexandra and the Russians at St Johns Smith Square in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov’s Return to London in May 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! St John’s Smith Square announces its 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! The Pierre Boulez Saal’s 2017/18 Season in Berlin __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

  • NEW! Newly Discovered Song by Alma Mahler to be Performed in Oxford and Newbury __________________________________
  • NEW! A Q&A WITH ANDREA CARÈ AS HE RETURNS TO COVENT GARDEN AS DON JOSÉ __________________________________
  • NEW! Chelsea Opera Group to Perform Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto at Cadogan Hall __________________________________
  • NEW! Rafael de Acha Introduces Some of Cincinnati’s New Musical Entrepreneurs __________________________________
  • NEW! HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • NEW! ENB’s 2018 Emerging Dancer will be Chosen at the London Coliseum on 11 June __________________________________
  • NEW! Akram Khan’s Giselle for ENB Can be Seen in Cinemas from 25 April __________________________________
  • NEW! BARRY DOUGLAS IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • UPDATED! SOME OF OUR REVIEWERS CHOOSE THEIR ‘BEST OF 2017’ __________________________________
  • NEW! Dénes Várjon Talks to Sebastian Smallshaw About Budapest’s __________________________________
  • R.I.P. IN MEMORIAM – DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY (1962-2017) __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month

    Search S&H