United Kingdom Beethoven, Finzi, Brahms, Debussy and Saint-Saëns: Lorraine McAslan (violin), Victor Sangiorgio (piano), King’s Place, London 12.4.2015 (CS)
Beethoven: Sonata for violin and piano in F major Op. 24 (Spring)
Finzi: Elegy for violin and piano Op.22
Brahms: Scherzo from F-A-E Sonata
Debussy: Sonata for violin and piano in G minor
Saint-Saëns: Sonata for violin and piano in D minor Op.75
With the weekend temperatures nudging ever upwards towards realms more common in August, Beethoven’s Spring Sonata seemed the perfect way to begin this recital by Scottish violinist Lorraine McAslan and Australian-Sicilian pianist Victor Sangiorgio. McAslan’s opening phrase revealed all the fine qualities of her playing: appealing tone, even line, fluent bowing, spot-on intonation, controlled finger-work and innate musicality. It was a pity, therefore, that she had to battle against the piano in the exposition of the Allegro; McAslan’s sound is not one of great heft, and with the lid of the piano fully raised Sangiorgio’s accompaniment, though eloquent and thoughtful, somewhat overwhelmed the violin’s utterances.
As the movement progressed, however, a better balance was struck. Sangiorgio gave the impression that he was listening with truly sustained attentiveness to McAslan; as she found an individual colour for each motif and melody, so the pianist responded to the alternating moods – now serene, then agitated. In the Adagio, taking over from the piano’s opening theme, the violin sang expressively, the vibrato full and relaxed. The ever more elaborate figurations were lightly etched, and while the accruing tensions created by harmonic modulations and dynamic exhortations were conveyed, the underlying serenity was never destabilised. The performers seemed a little surprised by the Scherzo – but then well they might: it’s over before it’s started and the rhythmic asymmetries further unbalance this briefest of preludes to the final Rondo. Perhaps McAslan might have ‘opened up’ a little in this last movement? A greater sense of spontaneity would have loosened the grip of focused concentration which had thus far prevailed. But, she and Sangiorgio were alert to every variation of nuance with which Beethoven enlivens his theme.
Finzi’s Elegy which followed is all that remains of a planned sonata for violin and piano; the movement was first performed by Frederick Grinke in 1954 but only published in 1982. The Elegy shares with Beethoven’s sonata a simplicity and loveliness, but now some troubled clouds mar the sunlit expanses. McAslan showed a great affinity for this idiom: she allowed the music to speak for itself and captured both its radiant serenity and its dusky dolefulness. There was a perambulatory ease at the start, but as the violin rose quietly from low depths a sense of urgent forward movement was created. The voicing of Sangiorgio’s inner lines was exquisite; at all times, the counterpoint was clear. McAslan’s soaring climax was beautifully expressive and poignant. And, just when despondent shadows threatened to descend, the skies opened once more.
Next came the Scherzo from the F-A-E Sonata – a collaborative musical work by three composers: Robert Schumann, the young Johannes Brahms (this is the composer’s first extant composition for violin and piano), and Schumann’s pupil Albert Dietrich (the title was derived from the phrase that the violinist Joachim had taken as his motto: ‘Frei aber einsam’ (‘Free but alone’). This short piece presented a strikingly vigorous contrast to the preceding lament; but despite McAslan’s forthright declamations, energised bowing, firm double-stopping and rhythmic incisiveness, she could not quite counter the density of the piano writing; Sangiorgio was not at fault – it was to take Brahms some time to resolve such issues.
The items presented in the first half of the recital had beguiled but not necessarily cohered, but after the interval a much more intense focus and structure was achieved. Two sonatas by French composers dating from 1885 (Saint-Saëns) and 1917 (Debussy) demonstrated the performers’ considerable musical intelligence and stamina.
First came the Debussy. Sangiorgio’s opening chords were a wonderful, floating introduction to McAslan’s descending thirds; all was fluid and airy, but underlying the slipperiness was a firm control of the underlying structure. Debussy himself expressed doubt about the success of his sonata – it was, he said, ‘interesting … as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in wartime‘ – but McAslan and Sangiorgio had the measure of its odd juxtapositions and changeable temperament. The violinist was able to change her bow style and weight in response to the mercurial fancies of the score; the tone was wispy in the dreamy central section of the Allegro brio, then robust in the climatic outbursts. I loved the way that the up-bows with which McAslan started the Intermezzo made the leaping motifs sound like the magical sweeps of a sorcerer’s wand; in the racing staccato passages, the strokes brushed the string evenly and lucidly, making the slippage into the jazzy central section even more beguiling. McAslan’s intonation was as perfect as her fingers were rhythmic in the racing triplet semiquavers of the flamboyant theme of the Finale: Très animé. The form of the movement is complex and the changes of time signature, tempo and material which accumulate towards the close were skilfully handled to maintain the onward momentum towards the bravura conclusion.
But this wonderful rendition of Debussy’s sonata was merely a Gallic ‘warm-up’ for the highlight of the evening: Saint-Saëns’s gloriously melodious Sonata in D minor. Here McAslan displayed great intensity of tone, if not weight of sound. She and Sangiorgio emphasised the ‘Classical’ aspects of the work rather than its Romantic excesses: thus despite the rhythmic freedom and syncopations of the Allegro agitato there was always the sense that the performers had a firm grip on the constantly evolving thematic motifs. The movement relaxed seamlessly into the Adagio in which the decorative dialogue between the two players was deeply ruminative and moving.
McAslan’s bow danced airily through the staccato flights of the Allegretto moderato – breathless and carefree. The Allegro molto confirmed the violinist’s virtuoso credentials; the scalic runs, cross-string arpeggios and multiple-stopped chords are fiendish stuff, but McAslan barely seemed troubled, concentration etched in her brow.
McAslan is an undemonstrative performer for whom the priority is clearly to communicate the meaning of the music as she understands it. She certainly did not seem inclined to milk the acclaim – but she and Sangiorgio deserved the warm, appreciative adulation which erupted at the end of Saint-Saëns’s sonata. As I emerged from King’s Place to darkened skies, I was warmed by this recital in which the sun had truly shone.