A quirky gig in a quirky London venue – but some spellbinding violin playing

Berio, Bach, Bartok : Alina Ibragimova (violin), Quay Brothers (video), Wilton’s Music Hall, London, 26.7.2011 (GDn)

Berio : Sequenza VIII

Bach : Ciaccona from Partita No.2

Bartok : Sonata for Solo Violin

There aren’t many venues like Wilton’s Music Hall. It claims to be the oldest music hall in the world, and it is certainly showing its age. The place has been under slow, slow renovation for decades, but has managed to make a virtue out of its continuing dilapidated state. Fashionably deteriorated Victoriana is big in some East End circles, so it is unsurprising that it has a cult following. You don’t see many classical concerts on the events listings though, and there are a couple of good reasons for that. The acoustic itself isn’t bad. It is a small auditorium, too small to make most chamber music commercially viable. The high, barrelled ceiling gives a warm but clean resonance. The biggest problem with the venue though is the Docklands Light Railway, which passes just a few metres from the hall, making the place rumble every few minutes as a train goes past.

But the moment Alina Ibragimova began playing all these concerns melted away. She really is an astonishing player. If you have heard any of her recordings, you won’t need to take my word for that. She doesn’t have a particularly round or powerful tone, but that’s not what her playing is all about. Instead, she plays every phrase with immediacy and direct expression. She achieves an intimacy with the audience, as much in the loud passages as in the quiet ones, and as much in the Bartok and Berio as in the Bach. In this sense, the ambience of Wilton’s is ideal for her art, and the chance to hear her playing from up close was very welcome indeed.

In his day, Berio was known as the friendly face of the avant-garde. His music made no aesthetic compromises, yet somehow he always managed to get the audience on his side. That is a quality that he and Ibragimova share, and this rendition of Sequenza VIII was about the most welcoming and audience friendly of any Berio performance I’ve heard. It is clearly difficult music, and much of it rattles past at a terrifyingly fast pace. But Ibragimova was unfazed by its many technical demands, presenting the music in her trademark focussed tone, and with genuine feeling in every phrase.

The pivotal work in the programme was the Ciaccona from Bach’s 2nd Partita. In fact, given the influence of this one movement on almost every solo violin work that was to follow it, you could argue that any solo violin recital revolves around the Ciaccona, whether it is on the programme or not. Its influence on Berio’s work was clear, and Ibragimova played the two in a very similar spirit. The way she can evenly grade long crescendos, and then maintain the intensity of the climax, really sets her apart. It also means that she can easily structure the emotion and intensity of these long movements without losing any of her concentration on the details.

The collaboration with the Quay Brothers was restricted to the Bartok Sonata in the second half. Their film is relatively abstract, but revolves around the events of the Sonata’s composition. Bartok, in exile in America and slowly dying of leukaemia, struggles to concentrate on the composition, while memories from his earlier life come flooding back. It is actually quite a modest offering, and the brothers are careful not to upstage the soloist. In truth, they couldn’t upstage her if they tried. The video they produced is serviceable, but as in the first half it was the violin playing that really made this multimedia performance excel. Again, Ibragimova was able to find the humanity in the score, and to communicate directly through every phrase. The film worked on similar lines, although it was perhaps a little less direct, providing visual support from a small palette of ideas to complement the more varied and more complex musical offering.

The synchronisation of music and film was very impressive, and try as I might, I couldn’t work out how they did it. Each of the four movements had an associated film, which began and ended at exactly the same time, and which often cut between shots in synch with the phrases. Ibragimova watched the screen throughout (she only needed the dots for the Berio), so presumably she played an active role in the synchronisation.

A quirky gig in a quirky venue then, but one that worked mainly because of the traditional musical virtues of the performer. Wilton’s got a helping hand from its big brother up the road, the Barbican, in terms of organising and publicising this event. It is on for three consecutive nights, and it looks like it will get a full house each time. If you are reading this on Wednesday 27th, you’ve still got a chance to catch the last night this evening. If not, don’t worry – Ibragimova is a regular guest at the Wigmore, and she sounds just as good without the gimmicks.

Gavin Dixon