An Enterprising Recital from Carolin Widmann and Alexander Lonquich

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Poulenc, Ives: Carolin Widmann (violin), Alexander Lonquich (piano), Wigmore Hall, London 7.6.2013 (GDn)

Schubert: Violin Sonata in A D574
Fantasy in C D934
Poulenc: Violin Sonata
Ives: Violin Sonata No. 4 “A Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting”

Like many soloists, Carolin Widmann is shown off to her absolute best by the Wigmore Hall acoustic. She has a narrow tone, focussed and occasionally gritty. It is very elegant, though, and she is able to produce plenty of timbral variety, albeit never a large or round sound. That doesn’t matter at the Wigmore Hall, because her playing is always clearly audible here, and in this acoustic the focus of her tone translates to intimacy. So, rather than large rhetorical gestures, instead we hear the details up close; they’re always interesting, and they are usually very beautiful as well. The two Schubert works on this evening’s programme appear on a disc that Widmann and Lonquich recently recorded for ECM (review). I was less impressed with the results there. The big, warm recording environment that is a trademark of the ECM label ought, by rights, to compensate for the lack of body in Widmann’s tone, but in this case it seems to have the opposite effect, isolating her in a broad soundscape that she is unable to fill. The Wigmore acoustic doesn’t make Widmann sound any warmer, but it does give her the presence and the immediacy that the ECM sound conspicuously lacks.

Pianist Lonquich is at the other end of the spectrum. His sound is warm and enveloping. Again, it is not a huge sound, but it is much more robust than Widmann’s. The two complement each other perfectly. Lonquich often behaves more like a soloist than Widmann does, and in the Schubert sonata it often seemed that the rubato impulses and the phasing were coming more from the piano than from the solo line. But that didn’t matter a bit, especially as the accompaniments in all these works carry so much of the musical interest.

There is never any feeling of undue certainty in Widmann’s playing. In fact, while everything she performs is technically correct – bar a few tuning slips – nothing ever seems completely secure. The narrowness of Widmann’s tone is a related issue, and it often seemed that her bow did not have the purchase it needed on the strings. There were occasional extraneous sounds from the strings themselves, some of the passage work was irregular, and some notes failed to sound immediately. Perhaps this is just a more reticent approach to the violin; it is certainly at odds with the more strident – more masculine? – sound that predominates among leading soloists today. On her recordings, these problems are minimised, but that reticence always remains.

The problem/issue/quirk was most apparent at the opening of the first work, the Schubert Sonata in A D574. The introduction to this sonata is, or should be absolutely exquisite; atmospheric chords from the piano over which the violin plays a simple, unadorned melodic line. The extreme exposure here, and the requirement to reduce the vibrato to almost nothing, highlighted Widmann’s insecurities, with her tuning and articulation particularly problematic. Fortunately, Schubert gives a second chance, including the atmospheric introduction in the exposition repeat. And this time it was just ideal: innocent and plaintive, but hinting at the complexities that are to follow. Lonquich treats the accompaniment of this first movement as if it were a solo piano sonata, but Widmann has enough ideas of her own, and enough volume, to ensure he never steals the show. Between them, they produce quite a Romantic interpretation, with plenty of rubato and intense emotions in every phrase. By the time we get to the recapitulation, we realise just how far we’ve come. That atmospheric introduction returns for a third time, but now all the naivety has gone, and the final statement of the themes from here on, while virtually identical on paper, is given with a sense of worldliness and reluctant sophistication.

Poulenc’s Violin Sonata is a rarity on concert programmes, but its inclusion on this one was clearly warranted. Widmann’s focussed tone gives direction and purpose to Poulenc’s occasionally wayward melodic lines, while Lonquich’s boisterous accompaniments fully realise the music’s playful side. Widmann occasionally struggles to produce the quantity of tone that the composer expects, which can strain the longer climaxes, but she compensates with the energy she puts into the scurrying details elsewhere. The finale is classic Poulenc, with surprises and changes of direction at every turn. Widmann and Lonquich manage to keep the suspense up right to the end, with every new idea sounding fresh and original.

Ives’ Fourth Violin Sonata is even more of a rarity, and perhaps justifiably so. But, like the Poulenc, it is a work that makes the most of these players’ ability to give focus and purpose to otherwise only tenuously connected musical ideas. Ives structures his sonata around a fairly involved narrative, which fills a whole column of the programme. From a musical perspective, the unifying ideas are hymn tunes, which are repeatedly abused in a variety of ways. Widmann’s brusque tone at louder dynamics seems appropriate in this music, and sits well with the composer’s distanced approach to his material. And again, the broad and sometimes frenetic playing of Lonquich gives weight to the proceedings, ensuring the music never sounds trivial.

The highlight of the concert was the last work, the Schubert Fantasy in C D934. Like the earlier sonata, the Fantasy opens in a nebulous atmosphere, with tremolo chords in the piano introducing a plaintive melody on the violin. This time Widmann was the music’s wavelength from the very start, and the whole performance was excellent from beginning to end. There is a lot of passion and intensity in this music, but it all falls under a carefully controlled emotional contour. After the impassioned opening statement of the themes the intensity drops as a series of variations begins in quieter dynamics and over lighter textures. But as the variations continue the intensity gradually rises again, slowly and evenly over the course of the second half of the work, and the controlled but emotive performance here was ideal, leading to a truly spectacular coda.

For an encore, Widmann and Lonquich played the third movement of Schumann’s Second Violin Sonata, another excellent choice. The movement is slow and dreamy, but with occasional melodic outbursts that, in this performance, seemed to come out of nowhere. As with everything that had gone before, and especially the Schubert Fantasy, the Schumann was poignant, focussed, intense in so many subtle ways, and, above all, filled with an exquisite beauty from beginning to end.

Gavin Dixon