United Kingdom Grieg, Glass, Saint-Saëns: Tai Murray (violin), Silke Avenhaus (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 26.11.2018. (CS)
Grieg – Violin Sonata No.2 in G Op.13
Glass – Pendulum
Saint-Saëns – Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor Op.75
This was quite a ‘heavy-weight’ lunchtime recital. Violinist Tai Murray and pianist Silke Avenhaus presented us with three substantial musical works – ‘substantial’, that is, in terms of their statuesque expressive form and register – and played with vigour, physicality, and obvious commitment and enjoyment.
Murray’s technique is wrought in iron and she plays with rock-steady, concentrated intensity. Her bow action is muscular but fluid, the stroke smooth and strong, sometimes seeming to extend almost beyond its own limits. Allied with a bright, true tone her action is like a magnet that pulls in the listener. Her playing is infused with a powerful current, an energy and force matched here by Avenhaus.
Grieg’s G major Violin Sonata begins in a more reflective spirit though. The second of the composer’s three violin sonatas was written during the three weeks of Grieg‘s honeymoon in the summer of 1867, and premiered that autumn by violinist Gudbrand Böhn, with the composer at the piano. The Norwegian ambience – which derives from Grieg’s use of small, repeating folk motifs, which are integrated into a classical sonata structure – was apparent from the start of the Lento doloroso, in Avenhaus’s opening gesture which created an improvisational song-like mood, inviting in Murray’s unaccompanied, rhetorical recitative. But, any lingering languidness was swept away by the ebullient Allegro vivace as Avenhaus danced forwards, the propulsion enhanced by the drones which wrap themselves around the violin’s melody before the latter frees itself in a rapid semiquaver flight. Murray enjoyed the melodic richness of this first movement, but I thought that she might have employed greater contrast of tone and dynamic to capture the individual character of each of the three main themes more sharply. There seems to me to be greater melancholy within the gentle waltz-like second theme, but Avenhaus’s strong low pedals and ostinatos seemed to prevent Murray from reaching for a true pianissimo reflectiveness. Indeed, with the lid of Wigmore Hall’s piano raised, the piano did at times seem to overpower the violin’s melodic crafting, as Avenhaus delved down into the resounding bass register with dynamism and forthrightness.
The tempo of the second movement Allegretto tranquillo was effective, rightly more purposeful stroll than carefree amble, and Murray’s judicious use of just a little, small vibrato enhanced the folk spirit of the theme. There was much drama and freedom in the Allegro animato triggered by the piano’s open fifths at the start which released a fount of playful melodic adventuring. The players effectively sustained the original tempo through the central tranquillo section, creating a brief calm but not lessening the momentum.
There may seem to be few connections or similarities between Grieg’s post-wedding outpouring of love and Philip Glass’s Pendulum which was written to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union and premiered, in its original piano trio form, on Ellis Island in 2010 (Glass arranged the work for violin and piano the following year). But, the pedals and drones so prominent in Grieg’s piano part, especially in the final movement of the sonata, and the sonata’s unceasing, driving forward-motion find a parallel in Pendulum which begins with oscillating arpeggio-motifs and double-stops and gradually escalates, with unstoppable forcefulness, in energetic intensity. Again, though, the piano’s circling bass motifs and growling staccato pedals, particularly at the start and in the more subdued central section, were too sonorous and obscured the delicacy in the violin writing. Pendulum seems perfectly suited to the muscularity of Murray’s performance style: the double-stops were strong and rich, with generally secure intonation, while the brilliance of her E-string tone helped her scale the grandiose musical sculpture. She and Avenhaus communicated the almost irresistible tug which Glass’s characteristic undulations and repetitions conjure. So irresistible in fact that one listener in the Hall was moved by the musical magic to leap to his feet with a cheer to show his appreciation of Murray’s obvious affinity with Glass’s idiom, and her sterling execution of its virtuosities.
Camille Saint-Saëns’s Violin Sonata in D minor is a fabulous work, one which is too infrequently heard in the concert hall, so I was delighted that Murray and Avenhaus chose to end their recital with this late-Romantic masterpiece. Perhaps a little more silkiness of tone might have lifted the violin sound during the opening arpeggio-based unisons of the start, and during the recapitulation where the piano’s low rumbling rather obscured the violin line. But Murray and Avenhaus certainly created the ‘agitation’ that Saint-Saëns calls for while Murray’s strong finger-technique ensured that the fleetly running scale motifs were smooth and sure. There was effective contrast between the bite that Murray injected into the repeating semiquaver pairs, the flinty sharpness of her staccato, and the slippery lyrical evenness of the ‘motto theme’ which evolves through and binds the sonata’s four movements. The transition to the Adagio convincingly quelled the tempestuousness of the Allegro agitato, and the players’ melodic dialogue grew with a sense of organic seamlessness and spontaneity. I thought that Murray might have employed a fuller vibrato here – there is much innate passion in Saint-Saëns’ carefully, elegantly crafted melodies – particularly at the peaks of the phrases, but the decorative flourishes were clean and well-shaped, and the piano tone was warm and consoling throughout.
Murray’s bow control was impressive in the Allegretto moderato: she contained the flying staccatos within just an inch or two of the middle of her bow. In so doing, however, she did eschew Saint-Saëns’s instruction to employ a single up-bow ricochet stroke – a minor detail that can be forgiven as the impishness conjured was infectious! I felt that the violin’s cantabile melody in the centre of the movement needed more warmth and projection; it does after all sustain our memories of the ‘motto’ theme and prepare for the piano’s subsequent chordal restatement at the end of the movement. The breakneck scales of the Allegro molto were brilliantly crisp and bright – and unwaveringly accurate – and the performers created an immensely satisfying drive towards the glorious and grandiose close.