Berlin witnesses a magnificent recital partnership between Braunstein and Argerich

GermanyGermany Schumann, Prokofiev, and Franck: Guy Braunstein (violin), Martha Argerich (piano). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 22.2.2020. (MB)

Martha Argerich

Schumann – Violin Sonata No.1 in A minor, Op.105

Prokofiev – Violin Sonata No.2 in D major, Op.94a

Franck – Violin Sonata in A major

Martha Argerich returns to town: for chamber music with Guy Braunstein and for the Ravel G major Piano Concerto with Zubin Mehta (to follow). My heart went out to those in the lengthy queue for returns at the Pierre Boulez Saal, but certainly not so much as to relinquish my ticket. Was it worth it? Yes, as ever. All three sonata performances elicited thoughtful, committed performances from Braunstein and Argerich in this, their first joint recital.

First, though, we heard the first of Schumann’s three late violin sonatas: enigmatic works, for which many seem unable to find the key. (I battled with all of them at one time or another as a student pianist, always finding at least one movement well-nigh impossible to bring off.) From the off, this was clearly a true partnership, well balanced, moving forward together, offering dialogue and contrast as required. All three movements benefited from a rightness of tempo and of tempo variation such as enabled much that can often sound problematical simply to fall into place. Argerich’s piano part in the first put me in mind of a cauldron from which Schumann’s witches’ brew could rise and seep into our consciousness – not, perhaps, entirely unlike Wagner’s contemporaneous conception of the orchestra as Greek Chorus. Motivic working seemed to nod on either side to Beethoven and Brahms, without ever sounding like anyone other than Schumann. The central ‘Allegretto’ was taken swiftly, yet with commendable flexibility. Surprises, modulatory and otherwise, at the ends of phrases registered with all the freshness in the world. If ultimately, the music remained enigmatic – that word again – then so it should. In the finale, fantastic, even impetuous flight and traditional lyricism alike rested on rock-solid foundations, harmonically and rhythmically. With so distinguished an exponent of the Piano Concerto at the keyboard, we should not have been surprised, but there was no sense that this was something other than music-making between friends on which we were fortunate to eavesdrop.

Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata (the violin transcription of his Flute Sonata) followed. I noticed immediately a difference of voice, not only concerning the composer but also his performers, its first movement speaking with idiomatic bitter-sweetness – such exultant, lyrical sweetness from Braunstein – and romanticised modernism. Mood swings were more abrupt, even cinematic, without compromise to underlying continuity. Potentiality in the piano part, simultaneously vertical and horizontal, was vividly generative. And still there remained some of the composer’s old Fiery Angel bite; perhaps there might have been a little more at times, but relative subtlety had its own rewards. The scherzo spoke more clearly of demonic possession, piano scampering taken up by violin and vice versa. There was plenty of sulphur here, however neoclassicised. Uneasy placidity characterised the side-slipping ‘Andante’, perhaps the movement that went deepest, so long as one listened. The finale proved fantastical, swashbuckling, and not without a little grotesquerie. Argerich’s seductive hammering of Prokofiev’s chords said it all.

The opening of the Franck Sonata sounded as if an old friend was greeting another – and it her, a third, Braunstein, responding in kind. Not that the music was taken for granted, but that the score had been thoroughly internalised as material for recreation. Outpouring and subsiding were two sides of the same Argerich coin, sometimes even within the same phrase; its spinning would often find itself caught in magical, almost Brahmsian half-lights, though never for long. Tracing and shaping of the first movement’s contours and indeed those of the rest of the sonata were undoubtedly a dual effort, partnership once again apparent from the outset. The second and third movements both offered intensification and due attention to particular character. There was wonder in their transformation too, not least in the myriad of colours revealed in piano chords and their progressions. Braunstein’s violin recitative in the third movement was eloquent and alluring, Argerich already having forestalled the danger of premature climax at the close of the second by taking this music attacca – and what attack this was! The finale offered refreshment in well-nigh Mozartian response, thereafter taking its own path, our guides both knowledgeable and passionate.

As encores we heard not one but two Viennese dances by Fritz Kreisler, played, as Braunstein now informed us, on Kreisler’s own violin: a lilting, poignant Liebesleid and a Schön Rosmarin whose notes flew off the page with all the time in the world.

Mark Berry

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