A Recital of Technical Expertise but Insufficient Relaxation  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S. Bach, Prokofiev, David Braid, Franck: Yuri Zhislin (violin), Sergei Podobedov (piano), King’s Place, London 19.10.2014 (CS)

J.S Bach: Violin Sonata in E minor, BWV 1023
Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No.2 in D, Op.94a
David Braid: Perpetual Pavan Op.17 (world première)
César Franck: Violin Sonata in A, M8

This concert by the Russian duo, violinist Yuri Zhislin and pianist Sergei Podobedov, was simultaneously impressive and frustrating: the ease with which both players surmounted the considerable technical challenges of the repertoire presented was admirable, yet the unnecessary ‘haste’ with which the performers sped through the programme was puzzling.  There were two things that I would have liked to have said to Zhislin and Podobedov before the recital: first, slow down; and second, lower the piano lid!  For, Podobedov’s strong accompaniments too often boomed resoundingly, drowning Zhislin’s climactic passages, even when the latter were played with impassioned force.  This ceaseless ‘attack’ and alacrity swept aside the true lyricism and grandeur of sonatas by Prokofiev and Franck, and it was not until the two, surprisingly blithe encores that the performers seemed to relax and play from ‘inside’ the music, finally communicating more joyfully and directly.

We began with Bach’s E minor Sonata (BWV 1023).  Podobedov’s pounding tonic flourish initiated a cascade of running semiquavers from Zhislin which were even and impeccably tuned, the complex string crossings smoothly managed.  In the Adagio man non tanto I found Podobedov’s accompaniment overly intrusive, disturbing the searching lyricism of the violin line, with its rhythmic diversity – triplets giving way to more elaborate motifs and trills before a more even flow resumed – and melodic breadth.  But, in the Allemanda the players captured the cheerful character of the dance, and the Gigue sped by breathlessly and lightly.

Arranged by the composer after his own Flute Sonata in D, Op. 94, Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No.2 was first performed by his close friend, violinist David Oistrakh, in 1944.  Its flute origins are evident in the opening melody of the Moderato with its lucid, long-held and repeated opening note, which Zhislin made sing purely and cleanly.  Indeed, throughout the sonata the intonation was faultless.  In this opening movement, as the violin melody danced through the wide-ranging explorations, there was an easy grace, and the step-wise falls and rises of the second subject were gently reflective.  The development of the material certainly had plenty of energy and bite, but the relentless force of the accompaniment meant that the sunny, carefree ambience of the movement was not conveyed.  The Presto was fittingly skittish, however, its cross-rhythms propelling the music fleetly forward.  Zhislin’s staccato quavers had just the right dash of satiric piquancy, an ‘edge’ which was momentarily released in flamboyant chromatic runs.  The contrasting middle section was cool and detached, Zhislin’s placid line exploding with playfulness in the runs and leaps, with their sparkling trills and harmonics.

The impetuosity of the scherzo unfortunately spilled over into the Andante which had little of the languor and sultriness that the theme’s lazy, jazzy chromatic oscillations demand.  Zhislin’s tone hinted at the shadows which Prokofiev reveals in this movement, but the pace was too hurried to allow the violinist to fully indulge his dark timbre.  The final movement was a bravura display but the bright joyfulness of the music once again proved elusive.

David Braid’s Perpetual Pavan, written for Zhislin and Podobedov, was given its world première after the interval.  In a programme note, the composer described the eight-minute work as being ‘based on a simple principle of accumulation – primarily in the piano part, that provides a gradual slowly-building process that supports a lyrical violin part’.  In this work, the performers seemed more fully to find the ‘spirit’ of the music.  Zhislin played with a focused, controlled line, while Podobedov produced a stirring range of colours, projecting the individual notes of the evolving piano gestures with well-articulated definition and a true sense of the composition’s structure.  This is an interesting work by the Welsh composer, one which effectively explores sonorities, both harmonic and timbral, and whose form is given strength by the use of keystone pedal points.

My misgivings about the tempi adopted continued in the final work, Franck’s Violin Sonata in A.  In the Allegretto ben moderato Zhislin certainly found the sweetness of tone that the composer calls for, but the expansive phrases require more ebb and flow than was evident here; for the swelling phrases infer the powerful Romantic grandeur which will subsequently be revealed, and thus require more spaciousness than Zhislin and Podobedov allowed.  The Allegro was played with fervent vigour, Zhislin’s rising G-string melody projecting richly, and the development section was full of stormy turbulence.  Yet, while the broad E-string melodies sang warmly, the wild acceleration and crescendo of the closing section was so relentless that it was actually impossible to distinguish the musical motifs which became swallowed by a tumult of reverberating sound.  Franck does provide the instruction ‘animato poco a poco’ but this was just too fast.

Zhislin rather ‘threw away’ the rhetorical trill which serves as a theatrical apostrophe to the Recitativo-Fantasia and I did not find the subsequent melodic wanderings sufficiently meandering; but subsequently the violinist impressed with the even, mellifluousness of his tranquil, running semiquavers.  And, it was in this movement that Zhislin most fully explored contrasts of colour and tone, to eloquent effect.  The final Allegretto poco mosso, with its wonderful melodic canon, can hardly fail to please, but it was only with the concluding return of this glorious theme – the consummation of the work’s cyclic development of its material – that Zhislin and Podobedov found the capaciousness and air necessary for the concluding Parisienne bells to toll effulgently.

Perhaps the radiant bloom of Franck’s final movement freed the performers from the unyielding intensity which had dominated the recital; or, rather, enabled them to find a different sort of intensity, for the two jazz encores that they offered revealed an entirely different musical spirit and partnership.  Podobedov, in particular, seemed enrapt during his exploration of Gershwin’s Summertime, Zhislin retreating to the rear of the platform to allow his pianist to propel his inspired probings with spontaneity and directness.  Zhislin himself raced through the registers and across the strings with mercurial lightness.  It seemed that the players had finally found the musical register through which they could speak with naturalness and ease.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment