United Kingdom Schubert & Brahms: Tasmin Little (violin), Piers Lane (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 9.1.2019. (CS)
Schubert – Violin Sonata (Sonatina) in A minor D385; Fantasy in C D934
Brahms – Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor Op.108; F.A.E. Sonata – Scherzo in C minor
Tasmin Little is perhaps most frequently associated with music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She made her Proms debut in 1990 with the seldom-played violin concerto of Leoš Janáček; she’s one of the few violinists to perform Ligeti’s concerto; she has recorded concertos by Szymanowski and Karłowicz (with Edward Gardner and the BBCSO), as well as works by Britten, Delius, Bridge, Ireland, Bliss and Walton; and she has given premieres of concertos by Robert Saxton, Dominic Muldowney and Stuart MacRae among others.
Here, though, the violinist was firmly on nineteenth-century ground, presenting music for violin and piano by Brahms and Schubert, with her long-term collaborator, pianist Piers Lane. The duo have recorded these works on the Chandos label: their disc of Schubert’s violin and piano works appeared in 2015 and they released a recording of Brahms three sonatas last spring. And, these were assured and flowing performances, Little’s 1757 Guadagnini filling the hall with refulgent colour and strength. Lane’s piano part, never an accompaniment, had real character and vivacity, and judicious use of the pedal created lines of great fluency and transparency. Indeed, the whole recital was characterised by musical clarity and immediacy, and both musicians exuded composure and evident enjoyment.
However, the programme seemed to me to be ‘inside out’, so to speak, with the two works by Brahms framed by an early and a late work by Schubert. It’s true that the architecture of latter’s C Major Fantasy is both unusual and monumental, and the piano writing sometimes orchestral in its scope and colour, but to my ear at least it does not seem to equal the quasi-symphonic stature of Brahms’ D minor sonata. That said, that symphonic quality was not what Little and Lane sought to emphasise, offering instead a more intimate reading of Brahms’ sonata.
The way that Little can modify the tone-colour of her Guadagnini to bring out every nuance and intimation is notable, and her playing in the opening Allegro was purposeful and well-shaped. The long lines of the first theme were both song-like in expanse and infused with fervency, but though they created strong momentum the duo were not afraid to hold back the tempo at times which, along with the clarity of Lane’s figuration, created a welcome spaciousness. Both the opening G-string melody and the soaring thirds of the Adagio resonated warmly. Little showed strong musicianship in the way that she built the intensity of the successive peaks and there was a lovely sense of freedom and breadth as the movement gently came to rest. The Un poco presto e con sentiment was restless in spirit and swept almost segue into the Presto agitato which was played with great power and majesty. Occasionally I felt that Lane covered the violin line – the lid of the Steinway was fully raised – but the players’ injection of forward momentum in the second theme was compelling.
The other work by Brahms was the Scherzo of the so-called F-A-E Sonata, which opened the second half of the recital with a tempestuous flourish, the violin’s open G triplet establishing the motif which would press through the movement. Again, though, the contrasts of temperament were skilfully crafted, the brief trio offering some gentle respite.
The concert had begun with the second of the three sonatas that Schubert composed in 1816 when he was just nineteen years of age. Here, Little used vibrato more sparingly and, combined with her focused tone and immaculate intonation, this created an almost Mozartian grace. Lane imbued the piano’s prelude with a sense of anticipation which was fulfilled by the violin entry in the Allegro moderato and throughout the piano was alert to the music’s dramatic nuances and passionate outbursts. Though Little’s tone was sweet and true, I thought that the Andante was a little rushed; the phrases seemed to me to need more time to breathe. But, the agility of Little’s bowing in the Menuetto was impressive and the Trio in particular had a lovely Romantic flow. Throughout the sonata, the duo sought and found the ‘drama’ in Schubert’s music, particularly in the agitation of the central section of the final Allegro.
Schubert wrote his Fantasy in C D934 to show off the virtuoso technique of the Bohemian violinist Josef Slavík, who premiered the Fantasy with pianist Karl Maria von Bocklet in Vienna in January 1828. And, there certainly was considerable virtuosity on display in the sparkling variations on Schubert’s much-loved song, ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ (I greet you), in the latter part of the Fantasy, as well as bitter-sweet lyricism in the presentation of the song’s yearning theme. But, it was the combination of an unwavering attention to the details allied with a coherent conception of the whole which was most impressive about this performance. Whether it was the delicacy of the piano’s tremolandos at the start of the Andante moderato, the precision of Lane’s trills supporting Little’s lied-like melody, or the dancing staccatos of the two instruments as they raced each other in canon in the Allegretto, each mood and manner was precisely defined. Racing scales, octave leaps, hopping string crossings: all were immaculately played. This was a true collaboration, and the duo displayed sustained like-mindedness as they moved seamlessly through Schubert’s complex structure with persuasiveness and poise. An injection of tension with the return of the opening material showed their appreciation of the work’s innate drama, and their shared enjoyment as they stormed through the concluding Presto was obvious.
This was a generous and sincere performance by Little and Lane. I was probably alone in the Hall in feeling that the three lollipop encores that they offered – Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5, William Kroll’s Banjo and Fiddle and Heifetz’s arrangement of Estrellita (‘My little star’) by Manuel Ponce – though played with flair and lapped up by the audience, unfortunately pushed aside the poetry that they had found and communicated in Schubert’s Fantasy.