Impressive Virtuosity from the Hagner Sisters

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók, Schubert, Debussy & Saint-Saëns: Vivane Hagner (violin), Nicole Hagner (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 30.3.2016. (CS)

Bartók: Rhapsody No.1 BB94a

Schubert: Fantasy in C D934

Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor

Saint-Saëns: Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor Op.75

German violinist Viviane Hagner is supported by the Wigmore Hall ‘Emerging Talent’ scheme, though ‘established’ might be a more apt descriptor, for Hagner made her debut more than 20 years ago, at the age of 12, and has since travelled widely and to acclaim, both as a soloist and as a chamber musician with many eminent collaborators.

Hagner’s technical assurance and poise were unwavering throughout this recital, in which she was accompanied by her sister, Nicole Hagner, in four works which vary considerably in expressive character. The violinist plays Stradivarius’s ‘Sasserno’ of 1717, loaned to her by the Nippon Music Foundation, from which she produces a powerful sound, one which is particularly penetrating at the top.  Hagner accesses a wide dynamic range and her intonation is spot-on, but she employs a very fast vibrato and while this gives brightness to her E-string, I found the tone itself a little lacking in roundness and not always fully centred, especially on the lower strings, and this lessened the expressivity of the more lyrical passages of the works performed here.

The two works in the first half of the programme seemed to play to Hagner’s strengths. Both Bartók’s First Rhapsody and the Fantasy in C by Schubert have unconventional forms in which the transitions between independent sections need to be carefully managed; moreover, the structures must also accommodate more improvisatory moments.  A good sense of the ‘organisation’ of the music was apparent in both works, as Hagner calmly and intelligently made the architecture of these multi-partite forms clear, playing with composure and naturalness.

Some forceful G-string playing characterised the opening ‘Lassú’ of the Rhapsody as Hagner combined fluency with a wild-edged energy, climbing fervently through the rhythmically-charged folk theme.  Nicole Hagner provided a strong piano accompaniment, though I found her staccato a little ‘dry’ in the opening sections of the subsequent movement ‘Friss’.  The rapid alternations of arco/pizzicato, fleeting harmonics, throaty ornaments and rich multiple stops presented no problem for Hagner, who attacked the latter with severity and accuracy.  The duo shared a strong appreciation of the folk themes’ fluid tempi, and whipped up a storm in an accelerando which – alleviated by a brief, more rhapsodic cadenza – raced to a ferocious climax.

Nicole Hagner displayed a light touch in the tremulous opening bars of Schubert’s C major Fantasy, but as the Andante molto progressed the piano was occasionally a little dominant, and the long violin melodies did not sing with full voice.  However, there was a better balance in the Allegretto where Hagner’s precision of attack ensured that the dancing motifs were etched with clarity.  Some critics have denigrated Schubert’s handling of the song, ‘Sei mir gegrüβt’, in the Andantino, finding the florid variations excessively virtuosic and little more than mechanical exercises; but Hagner swept through the ever more intricate variants with effortless technical accomplishment, though the theme which frames the decorative explorations did not feel sufficiently long-breathed.

The duo convincingly made a case for the large-scale formal coherence of this tricky Fantasy, striking a good balance between presenting the work as an episodic virtuoso showpiece – there’s as much to challenge the pianist as there is to demand technical bravura from the violinist – and as a multi-movement unified by motivic connections.  This was music-making of considerable insight.

Two French sonatas were presented in the second half of the programme. Although, once again, there was considerable prowess on display in both Debussy’s Violin Sonata of 1917 and the D minor Sonata which Saint-Saëns composed in 1885, these performances did not entirely convince.

The Allegro vivo of Debussy’s work was characterised by clean articulation of the melodic lines and typically precise rhythmic interplay between piano and violin.  Persuasive tempi were adopted as the duo moved effectively to and from the propulsive opening section and the dreamier central episode.  But, the Hagner sisters did not, to my ear, capture the expressive spirit that the composer termed ‘la fantaisie dans las sensibilité’.  I longed for more languorous syncopations, hints of the ‘exotic’ – blues colourings and inflections of both flamenco and Eastern European folk-song – and overall a greater sense of freedom, even more so in the following Intermède which somersaults and flits through an astonishing range of emotions.  Hagner played with technical litheness but did not fully capture either the sensuous languor of the central serenade or the general air of capricious airiness; similarly though the triplet semiquavers of the final Très animé were delivered flawlessly, the climax lacked a true spirit of ecstasy and release.

Saint-Saëns’ D minor violin sonata was delivered with similar proficiency – remarkably so in the furious moto perpetuo of the concluding movement – and once again the broad formal conception of motivic evolution and inter-connection was surely conveyed.  The ensemble was meticulous and the continual transferences of material between piano and violin were seamless.  But there is real, and sometimes unnerving, emotional turbulence in this sonata which the self-possessed manner of the performance did not always make evident.  In particular, the disquiet and urgency of the Allegro agitato and the deep sensuousness of the Adagio were not fully felt.  Hagner’s bow danced with impressive control in the Allegretto moderato, but the minuet did not really sparkle with wit and grace; and, while the Allegro molto gained compelling momentum – which never once ruffled the violinist’s pinpoint intonation or the pianist’s dazzling panache – it did not acquire an unstoppable force such as might blaze to a fiery conclusion with peeling bells ringing triumphantly.

In conversation with Andrew Druckenbrod in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2011, Viviane Hagner remarked, ‘When I look at people who have had a career in music for several decades, where you have an opportunity to grow in music, there are not so many. […] There is a huge danger in … playing well at a young age – it can become not that interesting’.

I certainly would not want to suggest that Hagner was ‘disinterested’ in the works performed at the Wigmore Hall.  Indeed, she plays with a noteworthy gravity which conveys an earnest and solemn engagement with the music.  But, the two Hagner sisters did not always communicate the pleasure that one imagines they derive from their music-making.

Exploring Vivian Hagner’s website I was interested to come upon the sisters’ recollections of the origins of their ensemble playing: ‘We started playing music together almost as soon as we had started learning our instruments, exploring all possible ensemble combinations: two violins, two pianos, and violin/piano. After winning first prize as a piano duo at the all-German competition ‘Jugend musiziert’, we soon realized that sitting at two pianos facing each other was not too conducive to serious music making, since we often couldn’t stop giggling and laughing, even during performances.  In our defence, it has to be said that it all happened during our early teenage years!’

A little more of this youthful joie de vivre would have given the necessary ‘lift’ to this recital, for while one could admire the virtuosity, the French works did not really take flight.

Claire Seymour


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