Augustin Hadelich and Charles Owen Offer a Masterclass in Responsive Performing and Listening

11/12/2018

Brahms, Ysaÿe, Adams: Augustin Hadelich (violin), Charles Owen (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 10.12.2018. (CS)

Augustin Hadelich

Augustin Hadelich

Brahms – Violin Sonata No.1 in G Op. 78
Ysaÿe (1858-1931) – Violin Sonata in E minor Op.27 No.4 (‘Fritz Kreisler’)
AdamsRoad Movies

Each of the three works performed in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at Wigmore Hall presents different challenges.  Brahms’ rhythmic arguments and melodic dialogues must both generate dramatic dynamism and articulate the G major Sonata’s architectural coherence.  The fourth of Eugène Ysaÿe’s solo sonatas propels the violinist through a mind- and finger-bending survey of the instrument’s virtuosic capabilities, in search of the true expressivity at the heart of technical extremes.  Almost impossibly intense concentration is required for the violinist and pianist to sustain the relentless momentum of John Adams’ Road Movies in which a languidly creative sensuousness is framed by hyper-alert kinetic restlessness.

Augustin Hadelich, in characteristically relaxed and calm style, proved master of all such demands, and his partnership with Charles Owen was a masterclass in responsive performing and listening.

This was clean, ‘Classical’ Brahms, though that’s not to suggest Romantic sentiment had been banished, for the emotional nuances of every carefully considered phrase were meticulously shaped and there was latent power which welled up, for example, in the first movement’s increasingly troubled development section and which infused the Adagio’s tight dotted rhythms with authority and assertiveness.

But, elegance, transparency and an airy fluidity prevailed in the Vivace ma non troppo, the first subject blooming as if the dawn sun had stirred a sleeping flower, the running scales flowing with the freshness of a rippling brook.  The lucidity of the textures brought every rhythmic conversation to the fore – never had two against three seemed so tight knitted, or the piano’s off-beat quavers against the violin’s aspiring climb at the close exerted such a syncopating tug.  There was not a single note that was not treated with equal care: every bouncing raindrop tinkled and splattered in the accompaniment of the Finale’s Regenlied-derived accompaniment.

Owen was supremely thoughtful, his playing as graceful as the raised lid of the WH’s Steinway, never overpowering, the low left-hand motifs soft and tender but always well-defined, pedalling judicious and restrained; and, Hadelich’s lovely, pure tone gleamed without evident effort, a singing voice, the double-stopping shining sweetly.

Tempi seemed ‘natural’, too; the opening chords of the Vivace had the ‘rightness’ of human breathing and Owen’s warm opening chords purred with contentment, the slightest lessening of weight on the second of the piano’s two chords-per-bar seeming to act as an invitation to the violinist to enter the song.  There were small details of interest.  The violin’s theme opens with a dotted rhythm in which the two notes are separated by a rest, but which are marked with a broken slur.  Hadelich kept the two up-bow movements near the heel of the bow, lifting quite markedly for the second quaver note, which was thus sharply defined.  Some violinists float through a long bow, almost playing through the rest, and this does create lyrical breadth and a dreaminess, but here we had impetus achieved in the most economical and effective manner – and it proved a telling gesture in the central section of the Adagio and in the third movement when the motif is heard in another new context, with its rhythmic values shortened.  It made perfect sense.

At the start of the Adagio, Owen’s chordal theme had majesty and confidence, but he withdrew discreetly with the violin’s tentative, harmonically unsettling entry, thereby establishing a tension between two contrasting moods which drove and shaped the whole movement.  There was the slightest hint of ‘smokiness’ to Hadelich’s tone, and the long lines of the opening section unfolded like a curling ribbon.  The double-stopping in this movement was smooth and true, and it was interesting that Hadelich employed hardly any vibrato in the closing passage, just enough to effect an occasional slight warming of tone towards the tapering end of a gesture.  There was just one ‘odd’ moment in the central section where Owen’s left hand seemed to slip – in one of Brahms’ leaps from high to low – smudging an arpeggio motif in the bass, which then seemed to prompt Hadelich to send a phrase leaping upwards, when I’d been expecting a fall … perhaps we were being reassured that they are human after all!

The players’ rhythms in the Allegro molto moderato were so intimately interconnected – I loved the dry crispness of Owen’s stuttering accompaniment to the second theme – that in the final Più moderato section, the consoling relaxation almost took one unawares; this was a wonderful summation as the varied themes entered one last, complex, conclusive conversation.

Earlier this year, Hadelich released a much-admired recording of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, on the Warner Classics label.  He seems to be instinctively drawn to the solo violin repertoire, and his 2009 disc, Flying Solo, included two of Ysaÿe’s Op.27 solo sonatas.

Here, we heard Ysaÿe’s fourth ‘character sketch’, dedicated to Fritz Kreisler.  I can only describe Hadelich’s playing as revelatory.  From the first notes of the Allemanda the voicing was exemplary: no matter what surreal exploits were demanded of the left hand, the right knew which path the music was taking and where it was heading.  From the Bach-ian grandeur of the first statement of the dance theme, through the lyrical richness of subsequent chordal variations, played with wonderfully long silky bow-strokes, and the delicate expressivity of the tranquillo counterpoint, this was bewitching playing.  And, then there were the pyrotechnics, which somehow made music of the mechanical magicking.  The Sarabande’s pizzicato opening was etched with archaic formality and graciousness, a lutenist’s eloquent poeticising, and with the commencement of the arco explorations a compelling momentum was initiated, the space carved by the arching string-crossings gradually expanding and spiralling into the ethereal realms of the violin’s starry harmonics, before being brought to rest by simplicity in the form of a pizzicato cadence of calm and completeness.

My violin teacher used to tell me that it was Joachim’s interventions that resulted in Brahms’ movements so frequently having ma non troppo appendixed to their tempo indications.  Hadelich certainly didn’t take much note of Ysaÿe’s Presto ma non troppo instruction in the Finale, flying with euphoric fervour through the uninterrupted semi-quavers, as if lifted into rapturous realms by the energy that he himself created.  And, he so evidently loves this music; the double-stopped open-strings took on a wild folky abandon; the Bach-ian melodism a spiritual purity; the racing stratospherics a quasi-hallucinatory rapture.

Hadelich’s performance manner is engaging: he faces the audience, offers them the full body of his Ex-Kiesewetter Stradivarius.  And he found, in this mercurial virtuosity, the heart and soul of this music, communicating it with openness and evident joy.  How wonderful it must be to have the technical command to engage with such music, practising, exploring, experimenting, until you have tamed the beast and found a jewel of great beauty.

There was ‘more but different’ to marvel at in John Adams’ 1995 Road Movies.  I don’t know how much rehearsal time Hadelich and Adams have had but this performance was a consummate exemplar of how to blend individual technical skill, musical insight, and responsive music-making.  From the riffing of the Relaxed Groove to the bluegrass energy of 40% Swing, via the bluesy languidness of Meditative, there was not a moment when the players did not seem to be breathing the same musical air as they drove down a road through varied terrain, with the window wound down and the wind in their hair.  

We might have expected Kreisler to be honoured by Hadelich’s encore but Nathan Milstein’s arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor served up some rhapsodic rapture to quell Adams’ racing and riffing.

Augustin Hadelich is not a frequent visitor to the UK, and it has been two-and-half-years since he last performed at Wigmore Hall.  I have sought out his performances – in London with the LPO, and more recently in Sheffield with the Hallé.  I notice that he will perform the Beethoven Concerto with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in January, in Poole and Basingstoke.  I’ve bought my train ticket.

This concert will be repeated on Radio 3 on Sunday 16th December at 1pm, and is available for one month on BBC i-Player.

Claire Seymour

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