Virtuosity, but not Veracity, from Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich, Prokofiev: Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider (violin), Robert Kulek (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 13.2.2019. (CS)

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider (c) Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider (c) Lars Gundersen

Beethoven – Violin Sonata No.1 in D Op.12 No.1
– Violin Sonata No.1 in G Op.78
Shostakovich – Preludes Op.34: No.10 in C sharp minor, No.15 in D-flat, No.16 in B-flat minor, No. 24 in D minor (trans. Dmitri Tsyganov)
Prokofiev – Violin Sonata No.2 in D Op. 94bis

This was the first time that I had heard Israeli-Danish violinist and conductor, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, performing in a recital hall, as opposed to a concert hall, either mounted on the conductor’s podium or bathed in the concerto soloist’s spotlight.  The Principal Guest Conductor of the Mariinsky Orchestra and Music Director Designate (from 2020) of Orchestre national de Lyon remarked in December 2014, on the London Symphony Orchestra Blog, that, ‘The thing that attracts me to conducting is that we get the chance to paint with an enormous brush.  I play the violin as well, that is a much smaller paint brush.  It’s still music, it’s still me, but the kind of colours that you can paint with an orchestra is incredible’, and the impression that Szeps-Znaider made in his debut Wigmore Hall recital was of a soloist who definitely wanted to make a vibrant mark – a broad swipe of colour and timbre, the boldness and vigour of which would etch itself in the audience’s memory.

This was a concert of ‘two halves’, with 19th-century Austro-German repertoire giving way to 20th-century Russian works after the interval.  In the first half, Szeps-Znaider was very much the Romantic virtuoso, playing with flamboyance, flair, dynamism and a touch of showmanship.  Beethoven’s three Op.12 sonatas for ‘piano and violin’, composed in 1797-98 may have been dedicated to Salieri, with whom Beethoven took composition lessons around this time, but there was little of the classicism of Mozart or Haydn evident in Szeps-Znaider’s interpretation.

This was assertive and bold playing, which emphasised every nuance of individuality and invention.  Szeps-Znaider’s bow was exuberantly lifted for the ‘blasts’ of the bright fanfare that opens the Allegro con brio and the movement was characterised by striking contrasts of dynamic and mood.  The honeyed warmth of Szeps-Znaider’s ‘Kreisler’ Guarnerius ‘del Gesu’ projects effortlessly; this was playing of striking power, and there was no doubting who the ‘maestro’ was, and no possibility that the piano might dominate the violin line, even with the Steinway lid fully raised.  Though, that’s not to suggest that pianist Robert Kulek did not command attention with his own individuality and thoughtfulness.  Nor that Szeps-Znaider cannot taper his sound to a soft whisper when he so wishes.  But, this opening movement was less a conversational exchange than a rhetorical drama of contrasts and grandeur – not just a ‘drama’ in fact, but real ‘theatre’.

The Tema con variazioni; Andante con moto, however, needs a little less hyperbole and haste, if the freshness of this gentle meander is to be communicated.  And, while there was some lovely silky violin playing to admire and subtle nuances in the piano accompaniment, as well as some quizzical dialogue between the instruments as they shared the leadership of the thematic development, I felt that Szeps-Znaider put too much pressure on this music from without, rather than letting it simply sing from within.  There was less mannerism and more humour in the Rondo: Allegro where the scything sheen of the Guarnerius E-string made its mark, and Beethoven’s trade-mark off-beat sforzandos showed their mettle.  In a final flourish, Szeps-Znaider’s violin sailed through the air in an exuberant arc.

Brahms’s G major Violin Sonata – in fact, possibly every composition that Brahms wrote – is driven forward by subtle, shifting rhythmic interplay, dialogue, conflict and undercurrents.  For all the technical accomplishment on display here, it was these rhythmic arguments that I missed – and I think that Kulek’s rather modest demeanour did not help: yes, there was clarity and poise, but we need more turbulence and unease from the piano’s depths and rhythmic contortions.  The Vivace ma non troppo opened in relaxed fashion, moving fluently forwards, but I did not sense the tense undertows that propel the music towards the first emphatic cadence – a point of arrival which is thus both a point of resolution and the embarkation point for new tussling.  We pushed onwards, but I could not feel the tug against the tide.  Consequently, the soft serenity of the violin’s scalic ascents at the close did not make its full, reassuring impact.

The Adagio, too, needed a little more spaciousness if its nobility was to register, and if the relationship between the majestic composure of the first theme and the taut intensity of the dotted rhythm motif which interrupts the assured poise was to be persuasively delineated.  Similarly, the Allegro molto moderato flew too fast to dwell on the taut dotted rhythm of the ‘Regenslied’ theme in a way that reminds us of the Sonata’s first steps.  And, oddly, Szeps-Znaider seemed to introduce a relaxation and quietude quite considerably before the final resolution to the tonic-major at the close of this movement – when Brahms indicates only a small diminuendo in the few bars before the final section, Più moderato – which reduced the consolatory gentleness of the close.

Szeps-Znaider seemed more at home in the 20th-century Russian works that we heard after the interval.  19 of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes Op.34 for piano were transcribed for piano and violin by Dmitri Tsyganov, the leader of the Beethoven Quartet who collaborated closely with Shostakovich and premiered thirteen of his fifteen string quartets (all but the framing Nos. 1 and 15).  Tsyganov began with a set of four of the Preludes, and it was this quartet that we heard here.  The moods were diverse.  No.10 was slippery and dreamy, tinged with a gentle touch of irony, while in the playfully arrogant waltz (No.15) Szeps-Znaider relished the opportunity to ricochet his bow boldly, even brashly.  Shostakovich’s symphonies came to mind in the sardonic march of No.16, while a clean violin sound gave the ostentation of No.24 a cool buoyancy.

Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata concluded the recital, and there was much to admire here: a lovely glowing sheen to the violin theme at the start of the Moderato and real commanding presence – perhaps even a touch of brusqueness and brashness – in the subsequent more rhythmic motifs and episodes; absolute technical mastery in a lightning quick Scherzo – Presto which flew by as if in a single breath; some bravura showmanship, defiant and exuberant, and not out of place, in the final Allegro con brio.  But, overall the impression Szeps-Znaider conveyed – and I can claim no originality for the phrase – was of a violinist in a hurry to get nowhere fast.  Where was the soft lyricism, even whimsy, of the central section of the Scherzo?  Why push this second movement so hard that it almost comes apart at the seams at the close?  And, what of the smoky sultriness of the chromatic sinuousness of the Andante?  Here, the false relations ducked and dived so swiftly that they became flutters rather than an oozy tinge, or moody meander.  There was, as with the earlier Beethoven, little Classical elegance to balance the confident stamp of modernity.

Virtuosity and vigour, hauteur and heightened theatricality: Szeps-Znaider ticked all the boxes with panache.  However, this performance left me – though apparently not the enthusiastic Wigmore Hall audience – impressed, but rather unmoved.  There was plenty of theatre, but I couldn’t sense the soul informing the act.

Claire Seymour

1 thought on “Virtuosity, but not Veracity, from Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider at Wigmore Hall”

Leave a Comment