United Kingdom Grieg, Mozart, Lutoslawski and Richard Strauss: Vilde Frang (violin), Michail Lifits (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 25.11.2014 (CS)
Grieg: Violin Sonata No.1 in F Op.8
Mozart: Sonata for piano and violin in Eb K.481
Lutosławski: Partita for violin and piano
Richard Strauss: Violin Sonata in Eb Op.18
In 2011, Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang and her Uzbekistan-born accompanist, Michail Lifits, released an EMI recording of sonatas by Grieg and Richard Strauss, together with Bartók’s sonata for solo violin, which won accolades from, among others, International Record Review (‘This is a spectacularly fine disc of unhackneyed repertoire in richly expressive performances.’) and Classic FM Magazine (‘Another outstanding disc from Frang, who makes even the most well-worn phrases sound as though they have just arrived freshly minted from the composer’s creative workshop.’). Judging from this Wigmore Hall recital by the duo, of a diverse and demanding programme that placed the Grieg and Strauss sonatas alongside works by Mozart and Lutoslawski, such critical tributes were richly deserved.
‘Duo’ is certainly an apt word: throughout the performance, Frang and Lifits demonstrated a remarkably concordant musical direction and striking expressive affinity while at the same time retaining strong individual voices and presence. Thus the two quiet, serious piano chords which open the Allegro con brio of Edvard Grieg’s Violin Sonata No.1 in F led seamlessly to the entry of the violin, the freshness and charm of Frang’s tone adding bloom and warmth, the phrases unfolding with a lilting ease. The players exhibited an incisive grasp of the overall architecture of the movement; there was a strong sense of organic development, as Frang developed the profusion of lyrical material through repetition and extension. The brief, gentle Andante coda was an exquisite transition to the second movement, diminishing magically before the commencement of the edgy unisons of the dance-like Allegretto quasi Andantino. The performers displayed an instinctive, shared feeling for the ebb and flow of the pulse. Although Frang has professed herself to feel more at home as a ‘professional musician’ in Germany – ‘It’s as if I can breathe more easily in Germany. You need to be near colleagues and have people around you who you can really connect with’ – she admits that Scandinavia is ‘where I have my roots, where I was shaped as a musician and a personality’ (interview with Nicholas Wroe, Guardian, April 2012); it is perhaps not too fanciful to suggest that Frang’s innate empathy for Grieg’s folk-inflected melodic and modal nuances, especially in the second movement which evokes Hardanger folk tunes and the uneven rhythms of the Norwegian springer dance, endowed her interpretation with an engaging naturalness. Frang’s sensitivity to the wide range of colours and textures of the Allegro molto vivace, from rich resonance to cleansing lucidity, indicated the maturity of her musical insight, which was matched by prodigious technical accomplishment enabling her to articulate such multiple moods with great discernment. The exuberance of the accelerating closing sections was truly heart-warming.
Mozart’s Sonata in Eb K.481 replaced the scheduled Fantasy in C D.934 by Schubert, but this did not mean that Romantic ardour, restlessness and intensity were dismissed. In the impetuous Allegro molto, there were strong contrasts of brightness and shadow, as Frang’s violin moved effortlessly from accompaniment to foreground, and again receded. (Mozart termed these sonatas works for piano and violin, and the partnership is an equal one.) The violinist’s impressive command of an infinite number of bowing techniques enabled her to bring a round warmth and clarity of line to the various accompanying motifs and patterns; oscillating quavers were beguilingly smooth and even, off-beat interjections possessed a pleasing fullness, double stops were soft and sweet-toned, rapid passagework burst brightly through the textures. Gently nudging thirds accompanied the piano’s calm melody at the opening of the Andante, as Lifits shaped the singing line with great eloquence. The minor key section, as the violin melody soared poetically, intimated a more troubling darkness; these shadows deepened as the harmony roved ever further from the tonic centre, and the performers imbued the movement with a Romantic breadth of feeling.
In the Allegretto, Lifits danced with agility through the demanding passagework, exploring diverse tonal colours; there was an airy lightness to the theme and initial variations – enhancing by Frang’s feathery, staccato up-bows – while in the third, the left-hand semiquavers were impressively even. A bravura mood was captured by the rhetorical chords of the fourth variation, before Lifits raced through the fiendish triplet semiquavers of the fifth variation with impressive equanimity; when the flying passagework transferred to the right hand, and the figuration increased still further, the counterpoint in the bass remained clearly defined and articulate. The movement ended in a dance of melodiousness and joy.
Composed in 1984 for Pinchas Zuckerman, Lutoslawski’s Partita for violin and piano consists of three main movements (Allegro guisti, Largo, Presto) between which are heard improvisatory interludes; the latter are written without bar-lines and here Frang and Lifits communicated with considerable responsiveness and understanding. Frang, in particular, seemed astonishingly focused and sure of her interpretation. There is an enormous amount of contrast – of material, manner of articulation, mood, register – and distant extremes are juxtaposed; Frang switched with notable control from pounding down-bows at the heel, to gossamer pianissimos at the tip of the bow, from aggression to reticence, from intensity to repose. But, the performers convincingly conveyed the unity which binds such dramatic episodes. The central Largo was especially moving and penetrating, while the ‘gigue-like’ rhythms of the final movement were invigorating and exciting.;
Richard Strauss was only 23-years-old when he composed his Violin Sonata; the operas and tone poems were still to come, but this expansive, deeply romantic chamber work – written at the time when the composer fell in love with the soprano Pauline de Ahna who would later become his wife – clearly reveals both the ingenuity and expansiveness of the composer’s musical imagination. The sonata is an outpouring of passionate, opulent melody and Lifits’ heroic opening flourish initiated a torrent of lyricism that flowed ceaselessly throughout the work. The Allegro ma no troppo was taken at a brisk pace, but there was sensitivity to the innate form and mood of each episode, the performers playing with superb ensemble and nuanced expression, holding back then pushing on. The violin lines gleamed, resonantly on the lower strings, radiantly at the top. The pianissimo passages had a focused intensity; G-string motifs rang with expressive warmth. In the development section, there was vigorous rhythmic and motivic dialogue between the voices and the tension steadily increased towards the resolution, reached with the violin’s soaring climactic Eb melody.
After such animation, the Andante cantabile offered tender respite, Frang emphasising the simple grace of the beautiful arching melody, the well-judged tempo maintaining forward flow. Frang’s unfolding lines were almost soporifically beautiful, the phrase endings exquisitely shaped and coloured; she seemed at times to lull herself into a musical trance. This movement is exceptionally difficult for the pianist, but Liftis – who won the Busoni International Piano Competition in 2009 – was more than equal to its demands; indeed, so precise were his rippling cascades, especially in contrast to Frang’s more ethereal whispers, that they were perhaps a little too conspicuous. The quiet piano chords which commence the Finale were mysterious and darkly ominous, and when the Allegro melody burst forth, it was as if the sun had thrust its way through a bulwark of cloud. Again, Frang used her bow with remarkable musical acumen: triple-stopped chords were sweet and rich; a whipping up-bow at the end of the vivo ascending runs created exhilaration and lightness; rapid slurred string crossings were eloquent and responsive to the piano melody. The ‘symphonic’ dimensions of the work were communicated with power and fearlessness.
After such concentration and commitment, the performers might have felt justified in simply relaxing and enjoying the applause; but Frang and Liftis offered us a ‘light’ encore, Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of Estrellita (by Ponce) which sent us home in a spirit of ease and contentment. Reflecting later in the evening on the wonderful music-making experienced, I did wonder if Frang – a portrait of Pre-Raphaelite serenity – was at times too assured, even introspective; that’s not to suggest that she played without passion and vigour, but one does feel that when hearing a work such as the Strauss sonata one should feel that in some way the performers are wrestling with material which challenges and excites. But, riveting composure and effortless virtuosity hardly give cause for complaint. Performing the entire, demanding programme from memory, Frang exhibited remarkable recall of musical detail and nuance, and an unusually persuasive perception of musical form and meaning. This was a truly compelling performance.
Vilde Frang performs Brahms’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali, at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 14th December 2014.