United Kingdom Beethoven, Bridge, Debussy, Corigliano: Jack Liebeck (violin), Katya Apekisheva (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 25.5.2016. (CS)
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No.7 in C minor Op.30 No.2
Frank Bridge: Violin Sonata
Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor; Fêtes galantes Book I – ‘Clair de lune’
John Corigliano: Violin Sonata
This was a meaty programme from violinist Jack Liebeck and pianist Katya Apekisheva at the Wigmore Hall, presenting four substantial sonatas of contrasting idiom and sentiment, with just the merest of palette cleansers towards the close. Liebeck perceptively inhabited the distinct voice of each of the composers whose works he performed, and the diversity of style enabled us to appreciate the violinist’s considerable interpretative intuition and acumen, as well as to enjoy his gloriously mellow, silky tone. Apekisheva was an assured partner, matching Liebeck’s technical command and musical awareness.
Beethoven’s C Minor Sonata Op.30 No.2 opened the recital, Apekisheva’s curling unison motif deftly and immediately ‘hooking’ the listener into the music at the start of the Allegro con brio. The Moscow-born pianist etched the motivic details with striking clarity in these opening bars, and indeed throughout the evening, and the result of the combination of her lightness of touch and decisiveness of articulation ensured that details in the accompaniment were always present yet never distracted from the violinist’s arguments. So, here, Liebeck’s entry reaffirmed the piano’s opening statement as Apekisheva slipped neatly into the background, her quiet arpeggios and dark bass trills creating a crisp bed upon which the violin could develop the initial idea.
The movement was all about contrasts as Beethoven roved between conflicting emotions: anxiety, defiance and momentary calm. Thus, the rich-toned violin chords which punctuated the close of the first subject were superseded by a tripping martial bridge section, in which the violin’s dancing dotted rhythms were complemented by the piano’s dry staccato quavers. The development section was notable for its lucid textures, contrasting dynamics and the dramatic juxtaposition of individualised motifs. Liebeck’s restatement of the first subject – the violin taking the lead and easing into the recapitulation – seemed to quell the energy of the preceding development, but any sense of relaxation was temporary and the close of the movement generated a tempestuous energy.
What a pleasure it was to enjoy Liebeck’s golden tone as he sang the simple theme of the Andante cantabile with grace and fluidity. The introduction of rising staccato semiquavers into the accompaniment served to stimulate an incipient urgency; as these grew into upwards-sweeping demisemiquaver scales, Apekisheva once again showed good musical judgement and a keen sense of the movement’s dramatic structure, subduing the running lines to a delicate pianissimo at the movement’s close. The cross-rhythms of the Scherzo were vivacious and the Trio, propelled by piano triplets that rippled like a clear stream, showcased Liebeck’s ability to craft a beautiful line as the melody climbed the E string. The Finale was full of rhetorical flourishes as the players conveyed Beethoven’s restless with almost paradoxical assurance.
The Wigmore Hall was the venue of the first performance of Frank Bridge’s Violin Sonata by the composer’s friends, violinist Antonio Brosa and pianist Harold Samuel, on 18 January 1934, in a Royal Philharmonic Chamber Concert. The work represents the composer’s efforts, in his forties, to move on from the pastoralism and Romantic lyricism which had characterised his earlier compositions, and to reinvent himself as a composer, engaging with musical developments on mainland Europe. The Sonata welds the traditional four-movement form into a single span in which motivic arguments are carried between the contrasting sections, the final part recapitulating the opening. Bridge employs a complex harmonic language which experiments with atonality and polytonality.
This is a profound and challenging sonata, as knotty intellectually as it is demanding technically, but Liebeck and Apekisheva demonstrated impressive understanding of the way it combines reticence and hesitancy with spirited passion, and the persuasive momentum that they established revealed the sonata’s underlying proportions and relationships. There was a lyrical energy to their playing which pushed to the boundaries of order but withheld, just, from traversing them. In the second section – the deep heart of the work and what would be the slow movement – the fecund musical ideas which were exchanged between violin and piano seemed to spur each other on in expansive fluid lines which both demanded great concentration from the listener and hypnotically drew one along the musical path. There were moments of introspection, as if the music was trying to quiet its own dark unease, and such reflective profundity returned in the recitative-like explorations for the violin in the ‘scherzo’. The crystalline radiance of Liebeck’s E-string melodies contributed to the shining beauty of the final section.
The reception of the premiere of Bridge’s Sonata was hostile: ‘tortured’, ‘so little spontaneity, so little charm’ were typical of the critical judgements voiced. Liebeck and Apekisheva gave an arresting performance which revealed the intense bitter-sweetness of Bridge’s idiom, the sureness of the contrapuntal forms which underpin the structure, and the breadth of the work’s emotional journeying.
The Allegro vivo of Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G Minor which followed was characterised by an air of sultriness. The mercurial rhythms and lyrical fragments passed fluently between the players, blending into a persuasive idiom; the clarity of melodic definition was matched by a harmonic slipperiness which was exotic and compelling. An exciting energy was garnered towards the close, making the hiatus before the violin’s final jubilant tumble even more telling. The Intermède was both more eccentric and more delicate than is sometimes the case, Liebeck showing great refinement in articulating the nuances of the fantasy and ensuing dance. Apekisheva created a lovely jazzy mistiness in the middle section of the movement, which was all the more beguiling for the contrasting snatches of lucidity that shone through the prevailing haze. The opening of the Finale: Très animé created a great sense of anticipation which was fulfilled when the violin’s semi-quaver triples burst forth with celebratory exuberance. The bluesy central section injected a brief touch of sorrow, and the fragmentary section which precedes the climactic final phrases was expertly shaped.
The recital closed with John Corigliano’s Violin Sonata. Composed in 1962-63, the work was originally titled ‘Duo’ and Liebeck and Apekisheva were true partners here, confidently negotiating the shifts and transitions between the endlessly varying meters and co-ordinating their independent rhythmic patterns with precision. The music is quirky, hyperbolic and capricious, and this was real chamber music playing, the performers communicating with deep understanding. While the harmonic and rhythmic elements were abrasively modern, Liebeck found a lushness in the melodic writing that was worthy of Brahms. The opening of the Allegro shone with a folky warmth reminiscent of Copland, as the violin rocked asymmetrically across the strings, but thereafter the angularity of the conversational exchanges created a tenser mood. Liebeck tenderly introduced the open-hearted theme of the Andantino and the simple, sincere melody developed organically into two expressive peaks before retreating back into the initial gentleness. A brief but dramatic piano pronouncement introduced the violin’s probing recitative in the Lento, the latter growing into an explosive cadenza which Liebeck delivered with great intensity of tone, dynamic and expression. In the final rondo-like Allegro the duo raced through the frenetic material with virtuosity and panache, the perpetual motion coloured with breathless violin glissandi. The players effectively ‘put on the brakes’ for a more melodic central episode, before rushing onwards to the cascading conclusion.
Corigliano’s Sonata had been preceded by an arrangement of Debussy’s ‘Clair de lune’ from Fêtes galantes but I felt that this was an unnecessary insertion between the two works which formed the second half, Debussy’s Sonata being complete in itself and needing no postlude. The arrangement was sweetly played, but the inevitable prioritising of the melodic line seemed to me to unbalance the fusion of melody, harmony and timbre which characterises the original. Perhaps ‘Clair de lune’ could have replaced No.8, ‘Très calme et doucement expressif’, from Debussy’s first book of Preludes which served as a gentle encore.