An invigorating recital by Vilde Frang at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Schubert, Bartók: Vilde Frang (violin), Michail Lifits (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 13.10.2019. (CS)

(c) Marco Borggreve

Brahms – Violin Sonata No.1 in G Op.78
Schubert – Fantasy in C D934
Bartók – Violin Sonata No.1 BB84

Founded in 1998 by Simon and Pamela Majaro, the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust has a mission to ‘bring chamber music to young people, and young people to chamber music’.  Each year the Trust pays for over 1,500 young people aged between 8 and 25 years to hear professional performances.  Its support of this recital by violinist Vilde Frang and pianist Michail Lifits was presumably the reason for the significant reduction in the average age of the audience members at Wigmore Hall!   Many young concertgoers were bearing violin-cases, suggesting that those studying in the capital’s conservatoires had benefited from the Trust’s beneficence.  It may also have been the reason why there were quite a few late arrivals, between the movements of the G Major Sonata by Brahms with which the recital began: experience in a ‘past life’ reminds me that teenagers are not the best timekeepers …

I had arrived at the Hall (in good time!) having spent the preceding couple of hours in the comfortable Members Area of the Southbank Centre, penning a report of a musical experience earlier in the afternoon: a concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra with violinist Augustin Hadelich and conductor Clemens Schuldt, the latter making his London debut.

It’s very interesting to hear two violinists perform, in very different contexts and repertoire, barely a few hours apart.  I find both Hadelich and Frang compelling performers, and they share an ability to communicate directly and powerfully, without mannerism and with sincerity and power.  But, while Hadelich’s violin seems to sing from inside the music reflecting an instinctive, innate musical understanding and an almost ethereal joy in the music-making, Frang’s more muscular manner and slightly ‘grainier’ tone convey a vigorous and very human engagement with musical debates.  But, then, I don’t really know: it’s hard to put such feelings – or anything about music – into words.  I can only say that, to me, Hadelich seems beatific while Frang seems more earth-bound; both are wonderful musicians whose performances inspire.

Michail Lifits’ first chord, at the start of Brahms’ G major Violin Sonata, was firm but calm, and Frang’s first entry – warm of tone and fluid of movement – suggested that, despite troubling current times, all might be well with the world after all.  There was a freshness, a youthfulness, about this opening; the duo also gave the phrases plentiful room to breathe without any loss of rhythmic definition, and there was a lovely ebb and flow, as the two instruments lofted motifs back and forth in a harmonious but vitalised dialogue.  As the rhythmic tugs-of-war became more tussling, however, I think there were some losses of cohesion.  I may be wrong – perhaps I misheard, or lost concentration – but as a fiddle-player who’s had this sonata in their fingers (at their own level!) for thirty-plus years, I was disconcerted on a couple of occasions, almost jolted to attention by unexpected tensions and tugs between the two instruments.  Moreover, through the development section of the Allegro non troppo Lifits’ tone seemed to become increasingly ‘metallic’ and harsh.

If I had misgivings about the first movement, then the piano’s almost Rachmaninov-like surge-and-fade through the first statement of the Adagio’s chorale theme won me back: though Lifits’ dark emphasis of the piano’s lowest regions took a little getting used to, as did the ‘clipping’ of some phrase endings.  What did enthral was the intensity of Frang’s tone: no matter how slowly the bow moved, the sound was sustained with an almost iron concentration.  The violinist’s closing double-stopped theme – comprising some sixths and thirds which are not easy to tune in the context of the preceding musical arguments – was wonderfully sure, dark and even.  The Allegro molto moderato had some surprises too, with some striking dynamic contrasts disturbing the trickling flow of raindrops.  But, there was a return to the joyful spirit of the first movement too, at the close: though now it was a joy borne of experience, rather than innocence.

Franz Schubert’s 1827 Fantasy in C followed.  In his programme article, Gavin Plumley suggests that Schubert offers us a ‘fantasy cast in the mould of a sonata’.  Perhaps.  One can make a musicological case that this Fantasy is striving for four-movement definition, but my principal impression on this occasion was that this is a work rooted in Viennese song and dance – from the exquisite ballrooms to the city’s gypsy-inhabited backstreets.  Waltzes, polonaises, lieder and folksong give the fantasy its lifeblood.  Moreover, one of the strongest things that Frang and Lifits communicated to me was what an absolute delight the piece was to perform: they sent me back to my music box-files to retrieve my fiddle part …

There was also a sense of playful competitiveness about this performance: and, Frang could hold her own against Lifits’ assertive Steinway!  The violin’s feistiness – expressed through powerful bowing and a really muscular tone – pushed the piano to ever more dismissive outbursts, but the latter never won.  That’s not to suggest that this was simply a battle with no breathing space: there was much irony too, as in the form of the violin’s ‘mocking’ pizzicatos.

The exuberance of the shimmering close of Schubert’s was exhilarating, but both performers seemed most ‘at home’ in the post-interval sonata: Bartók’s first Violin Sonata, which seemed particularly suited to Lifits’ approach and tone.  The emotional depth and changefulness was quite overwhelming – in the best sense of the term: gentle lyricism, improvisational spontaneity, plaintive folk laments, Debussyian resonant shimmers – this sonata had them all in affecting spades.  The still spirituality of the opening ‘prayer’ for solo violin was particularly striking, but it quickly acquired a tone by turns more mournful and more agitated.  The second movement Adagio was wonderfully consoling but never restful; and the latter’s quest for resolution and peace blossomed in springiness of the final movement, until … a broken string!  No matter: Frang and Lifits retreated, reappeared and resumed.  By the close I was surprised that she did not have four broken strings and a hairless bow, so fearless was her commitment as she grittily scaled the lower strings, twanged the pizzicato chords, and dug in deep in slicing down bow repetitions.

This was a terrifically invigorating performance.  I will certainly be back for more when Frang returns to Wigmore Hall and I hope that the Cavatina-supported youngsters will be too.

Claire Seymour