Memorable and Exhilarating Enesco Violin Sonata

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Enesco: Gabrielle Painter (violin), Evgenia Startseva (piano). Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 14.4.13 (GPu)

Brahms, Sonata for Piano & Violin No.1 in G, Op. 78
Enesco, Violin Sonata No.3 in A minor, Op.25

Two masterpieces of the violin and piano repertoire, but oh,how different!

Although the sonata by Brahms (composed in 1878-1879) is designated his first for violin and piano, Brahms appears to have written (or attempted to write) four previous works in the form, none of which he was sufficiently happy with to retain, let alone publish. Certainly Opus 78 has nothing of the tyro about it; this is a thoroughly accomplished piece. It was written soon after the death of his godson, Felix Schumann – a violinist and poet – at the age of just 24. Although clearly marked by Felix’ death, the sonata is not adequately described as predominantly elegiac or funereal in mood. Certainly there are passages expressing a sense of loss; but there is are also forceful expressions of hope. The darkest music comes in the central adagio, though even here the sombre middle section, a kind of funeral march, is framed by more affirmative music. The music explores attitudes towards innocence and experience, childhood and adulthood, rather than ‘life’ and ‘death’.

As one would expect from a violinist as experienced and accomplished as Gabriel Painter, especially when supported by so fine an accompanist, we were treated to a technically assured reading of this sonata. But a final spark was missing to lift it to a higher level yet;. Primarily she didn’t, on this occasion, make Brahms’s melodies ‘sing’ as much as the lyricism of much of the writing demands. There was, too, an occasional stiffness of rhythm to her playing; the long melody of the second subject in the slow movement needed to flow rather more. The opening of the third movement found Painter at her best, however, delicately tender and expressive. Throughout, Evgenia Startseva was an outstanding accompanist, both responsive and encouragingly affective, and her playing in the opening bars of the adagio was resonantly beautiful.

Where Brahms’s sonata is an essentially decorous work, a dimension emphasised in this performance, Enesco’s is wild and turbulent, very much “in the character of Romanian folk music” as its composer described it. By a familiar paradox that wildness, the quasi-improvisatory quality of much of the music, is achieved by a score which is meticulously annotated by Enesco, marked with fingerings, instructions such as molto vibrato and much, much more, To capture the remarkable idiom of this work the performers, and especially the violinist, have to find ways both of respecting and learning from the plethora of markings Enesco provides and, at the same time, investing the music with the passion and seeming freedoms of a Romanian gipsy fiddler, which means not being too ‘correct’, too ‘decorous’ over issues such as bar lines or too pedantic about precisions of pitch.

Gabriel Painter triumphantly embraced the challenges of the piece, with all its slides and portamentos, its quarter tones and its bending of pitches, its employment of sul tasto and ponticello playing and much else. The result was exhilarating in the extreme, full of vehement runs and violent outbursts, imbued with an unpredictability that embodied the manifold twists and turns of Enesco’s work. Painter and Startseva responded equally well to the rhapsodic dialogue of the first movement (moderato malinconio), which seemed like a musical ‘translation’ of a sad folk tale or a ballad of which one didn’t know the details, followed by the mysteriously resonant nocturnal landscape of the second movement and the wildly turbulent dancing patterns of the final movement. Their Brahms may have been very slightly disappointing, judged by the very highest standards, but the Enesco of Gabrielle Painter and Evgenia Startseva will live long in the memory.

Glyn Pursglove