United Kingdom Debussy, Prokofiev, Pärt: Alina Ibragimova (violin), Steven Osborne (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 7.6.2014 (GD)
Debussy: Violin Sonata in G Minor
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No.1 in F minor Op. 80; Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 94
Arvo Part: Fratres for violin and piano.
After hearing several ‘high profile’ orchestral concerts in the last couple of weeks at London’s two main concert halls and being variously disappointed both with the performances and the acoustical limitations, it was a joy to return to the Wigmore Hall for its ideal acoustics (from anywhere in the hall) and the superb performances heard tonight. The recital was part of a series of performances ‘spotlighting’ the pianist Seven Osborne, who is also a most accomplished accompanist. But the real focus tonight was on violinist Alina Ibragimova.
Debussy’s Violin Sonata, probably the shortest of its kind, lasting a little over 13 minutes, is also one the most important of the twentieth century. The sonata sounds so French. This sounds like a cliché, but as one commentator has said of the work: This sonata eludes analysis … it reveals itself only to the ear’. This is true, but it is also true to say that the work is full of the most wonderfully economic composition; a compositional technique which indeed eludes not only analysis but also description. Ibragimova caressed the opening expressive contrasting arpeggios with the lightest bowing technique imaginable, sounding like silk, with the evocation of the erotic, similar to the tonal odour of the most discreet perfume. Of course Debussy wanted to develop a distinct French music, not just in itself as a reaction to the Franco-Prussian war and defeat, but also as a reaction to the dominance of Germanic music at the time, particularly Wagner. Ibragimova was in her element in the next movement intermède with its dance-like evocations and free feeling gypsy melodies and rhythms. The affective use of double stops, pizzicato and glissandi sounded almost rough-edged at times, but the following Puck-like dances and the sensuous chromatic modulations made for the most subtle of contrasts. Ibragimova’s abilty to make this stunning range of contrasts cohere into this short movement reminded me of the classic 1940 recording with Bartok and Szigeti, although Ibragimova did not deploy anything like the heavy rubato of the latter, which was more fashionable in 1940. The finale with its rotation of circular figures, ‘like a snake biting its own tail’ was delivered with an elan, so typical of this superb violinist. But subtending all the virtuosic playing was an element of humour: this astonishing feat of ‘circular’ writing, a final hit against Wagnerian, linear development and a final glimpse of what Debussy might have given us in the last trio of sonatas which would have completed the intended set of six sonatas for differing instrumental combinations.
We were taken into a totally different and dark soundscape with Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata with its opening octaves alternating bars of 3 and 4 quarter-notes, and producing a fragmentary element – like a broken anguish. Ibragimova was amazing in the B minor interlude in the muted fast scales covering the full range of the instrument, and again, that incredible violin range of muted scales in the section marked ‘freddo’ – cold, chilly – with hardly any vibrato. Prokofiev told Oistrakh at the first performance in 1946 that this should sound like ‘wind across a graveyard’and it had precisely that effect tonight. Ibragimova also made a dazzling effect with the concluding strange stuttering pizzicatos. As one commentator put it: ‘sounding like rats feet over broken glass’. Both soloist and pianist made the most of the second movements hammered chords, relieved alternately by a true Prokofiev march (marked ‘eroico’). In the following passage of hysterical triplets I was sure that Ibragimova would have to re-string – so vigourously did she play, sounding like at least 4 violins in unison! But miraculously, and despite strong Martellato bow attacks, her bow stayed intact. It was a relief to hear the two short tranquillo sections – with a stunning sense of contrast from Ibragimova. The movement is in a fairly loose C major, and ends with the piano’s four contrasted Cs and the violins highest register, incredibly difficult to bring off, but delivered tonight with spontaneous rapport between soloist and accompanist. The following andante with transparent writing for piano sounding quite ‘French’ and the contrasting middle section, with long ethereal violin figurations, was perfectly balanced, as was the finale with its ‘toccata-like perpetuum mobile’ with a myriad juxtapositions and changes in tempo and dynamics, in contrast to the answering decorative violin clusters.
Of course the sonata’s dedicatee Oistrakh, who also gave the first performance, still remains the classic ‘library’ choice, with his recording with Lev Oborin, at the time of the premiere, and his later recordings, especially with Sviatoslav Richter. But tonight’s performance, which was recorded, will be a top choice for an alternative modern version.
Arvo Pärt’s Fratres (literally ‘Brothers’) written in 1977 has had the same significance and emotional charge in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century that Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings had in the earlier part of the twentieth century. With its recurring percussion motif and progressive chords it opens up a rich harmonic space. Arvo Pärt has described the affective aspects of the work quite succinctly as ‘the instant and eternity which are struggling within us’. This almost has a resonance which philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin would have understood. It has been used in quite a few films, but has a particular resonance in films and documentaries which deal with human catastrophies like the Nazi Holocaust where mere words seem to lose their efficacy. Although the work is quite modern it has, in its sense of sublime stillness and timelessness, elements of the Russian Orthodox chant, used so effectively by Chris Marker in his 1962 film La Jetee, which thematises a post-nuclear world of devastation. Although Part wrote Fratres for string quintet with wind quintet, there followed numerous other arrangements most prominently for string orchestra and percussion with or without violin. Tonight the arrangement for violin and piano worked well. Especially enchanting were Ibragimova’s opening solo chant melody ‘appearing within a halo of string passagework’, as tonight’s programme note writer so aptly put it. It is passages like this where Ibragimova, playing in quite a free improvisatory style seems to be able to carry a crescendo for ever, similar to a master violinist like Heifetz. Osborne’s piano contribution here was full of insights, like the captivating repetitive drone-bass figure, adding a quasi funeral tone to the work. Again and throughout the score there was an ideal sense of rapport, and more importantly, dialogue between soloist and accompanist.
The Violin Sonata No. 2, again premiered by Oistrakh and arranged from a flute sonata, is a much lighter ‘sunnier’ work in D major and mostly in major key registers. All the sonata’s qualities were compellingly performed from the range of melodic inventions in the opening Moderato,to the pounding but bright rhythmic propulsions of the scherzo-like Presto, the introspective and tranquil, but slightly mysterious tone of the Andante and the staccato wit and humour of the finale Allegro con brio with its highly reminiscent tones of L’Amour des trois oranges; all wonderfully balanced and contoured. The violinistic leaps, cross-rhythms and dynamic/harmonic contrasts in the finale were not always note-perfect., but Ibragimova brought a freedom and sense of spontaneity far more affecting and engaging than mere note accuracy.
As a fitting encore Ibragimova played the fifth of Prokofiev’s Cinq Melodies (Five Melodies) Andante non troppo Op.35b which the composer transcribed for violin and piano from an earlier set of ‘Five Songs Without Words’ Op 35. She gave a predictably warm and melodically flowing rendition of this charming miniature.