Delectable Schubert from Susan Tomes and Erich Höbarth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Susan Tomes (piano), Erich Höbarth (violin), Wigmore Hall, London, 16.2.2015 (CS)

Sonata (Sonatina) in A minor for piano and violin D.385
Sonata (Duo) in A major D.574
6 Moments musicaux D.780: No.1 in C major; No.2 in A flat major; No.3 in F minor
Fantasy in C D.934


This all-Schubert recital by pianist Susan Tomes and the Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth – leader of Quatuor Mosaïques and Concentus Musicus Wien – was a welcome opportunity to hear some less familiar compositions from the repertory for violin and piano.  It was also a valuable reminder of the composer’s astonishing and inexhaustible invention, and of the diversity, and unpredictability, of Schubert’s emotional range: frequently I was taken by surprise by the angry outbursts which suddenly shattered the equanimity, and by the unforeseen quelling of the music’s restlessness by tuneful repose.

Höbarth’s is not a ‘big’ sound, but it is unfailingly sweet, just as the violin’s lines are unfolded with dependable eloquence.  Thus, the violin’s large leaps at the opening of the Allegro moderato of the Sonata in A minor swept away the calm of the piano’s quiet introductory phrase, but the bold declamation was stirringly expressive rather than forceful.  In this way, the qualities that typified the whole recital were in evidence in these opening bars: clean, attentive lines from Tomes – with the relative ‘weight’ of the left and right hands judiciously delineated, without mannerism – and intelligently varied vibrato and a well-modulated tone from Höbarth.  The fortissimo of the violin’s opening statements shaded naturally into the folk-like simplicity of the piano’s melody.  Such give-and-take created a strong forward drive; and, in the development section Tomes used the minim movement in the piano left-hand thoughtfully, to guide the music on its harmonic path.

After the delicate tension at the close of the first movement, the F major melody which commences the Andante offered warmth and calm, gentle dignity characterising the violin’s imitation of the piano’s opening bars.  The tempo was fairly swift, and the running semiquavers spilled lightly from piano to violin, and back again to the bass, with striking dynamic contrasts creating further impetus and drama.  An unexpected modulation marked a restatement of the main theme, strongly announced by Höbarth, and there was a real sense of partnership in the interchanges of the subsequent episode.  In the final reprise of the melody, the violin’s E string arcs were exquisitely phrased.

The Menuetto, Allegro was full of spark and ‘edge’ – this was no courtly dance! – although the Trio’s legato quavers possessed a graceful fluidity.  In the concluding Allegro Tomes’ clear definition of the diverse voices was impressive – one could almost imagine the movement arranged for chamber group.  Höbarth’s playing was characterful and the dialogues between violin and piano generated the drama of an operatic ensemble.

Schubert’s Sonata (Duo) in A was similarly rich in melodic invention and variety, but here the performers used the widening of the melodic curves and the expanded tessitura to convey the music’s more imposing stature and the developing confidence of Schubert’s individual ‘voice’.  Höbarth’s lines were relaxed and sure, and while Tomes’s leaping figures were airy and articulate, she receded gently in the accompaniment textures.  There was a sense of light-hearted capriciousness in the moves between major and minor modes.  Again, the bass line – with its insistent dotted rhythm – brought direction to the development and ushered in persuasively the recapitulation.

The Presto tempo of the Scherzo demanded virtuosity and precision from both players, and they met the technical challenges with an engaging flamboyance.  Höbarth’s bowing was admirably controlled, fleet spiccato giving way to the Trio’s long, flowing chromatic rises.  The Andantino’s opening melody, with its rocking accompaniment, had a strong presence and sense of purpose, but unexpected modulations created a more fantasia-like mood, by turns assertive and affectionate – the latter felt most especially in the poignant alternation of major and minor in the closing bars.  The Allegro vivace finale was a dancing whirlwind, the varied themes interweaving, the contrapuntal dialogue generating ceaseless energy.  The notable agility of Tomes’s bass line was complemented by the folky ease of Höbarth’s violin melody, the latter delivered with joyful naturalness.

After the interval, Tomes performed the first three of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, which were published in July 1828 just a few months before the composer’s death (although the third was written in 1824).  Tomes attentively imbued the somewhat sparse writing with a real sense of wisdom, the melodies lilting and sweet yet profound as well as touching.  No.2 in A-flat, Andantino, possessed a particularly lulling sway at the opening, but this was startlingly disturbed by the strong accents and dramatic minor-key interjections which carried us from composure to sadness, even despair.  No.3 in F minor, first published as ‘Aire Russe’, possessed a delightful charm, beneath which one intimated, perhaps, a sense of the darkness of the Rhineland forest.  Overall, in these three short pieces the juxtaposition of strong contrasts of feeling was expertly controlled.

Perhaps the technical challenges of the three-movement Fantasy in C D.934 are responsible for the rarity of its appearances on concert programmes – the work was written in the last year of the composer’s life for the young Czech violinist, Josef Slavik, whom Schubert is said to have regarded as the ‘second Paganini’.  However, Tomes and Höbarth made a compelling case for this long, complex work, which melds together seven elaborate sections.

The virtuosic demands on both players are considerable: in addition to the technical challenges of the individual parts, great precision is required in the rapid passagework, as well as a measured balance between the two voices.  Here, only occasionally did the piano overpower the violin (although I did wonder about wisdom of leaving the piano lid raised after the Moments musicaux, for at times Höbarth had to work hard to equal the piano’s presence).  But, amid the tempestuousness there is poetry and delicacy to complement the bravura, especially in the opening bars, and Höbarth’s melody emerged beautifully from the piano’s hushed tremolos.  The third section of the work forms a sort of ‘slow movement’; one was, as so often in this recital, taken delightfully by surprise, as the music ‘slipped’ into a set of variations on Schubert’s 1821 song ‘Sei mir gegrüßt’.  These four variations were played with marvellous melodic elegance, and this episode cogently countered the prevailing virtuosity of the work.  And, after the performers’ taxing journey through such intricate, sumptuous material, it was the wonderful reappearance of the song’s loving melody, before the explosive final cadence, which lingered in one’s memory.

Claire Seymour

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