United Kingdom Virtuoso Violin: Mathilde Milwidsky (violin), Huw Watkins (piano). Levinsky Hall, University of Plymouth, 12.11.2022. (PRB)
Bartók – Romanian Folk Dances
Huw Watkins – Arietta; Romance; Partita for solo violin
Paganini – Caprice No.24 for solo violin
Elgar – Sonata for violin and piano
Ravel – Tzigane for violin and piano
This was a recital in the Musica Viva Concert Series under the auspices of University of Plymouth’s Arts Institute. It was only the second such event in Levinsky Hall since the recently-renamed venue – formerly referred to as Lecture Theatre One – had taken over the role of the University’s main concert venue.
The first concert may be remembered for its bomb scare, an unfortunate consequence of an unsecure message on social media, read by more than its intended recipient. University audiences have come to expect the thirty-minute pre-concert talk, but on that night it had clearly been difficult to hear at the back of the auditorium. So, it was rewarding to see Arts Institute Director of Music Dr Robert Taub introduce, and chat with, the evening’s two performers in the same casual yet most informative fashion, and this times everyone was able to enjoy what was being said.
Mathilde Milwidsky began her recital with Bartók’s Six Romanian Dances in Zoltán Székely’s 1925 arrangement for violin and piano. They proved the ideal start to the programme. All six of them introduced at least one aspect of Milwidsky’s phenomenal technique, which would then be developed as the rest of the programme unfolded – and all in a work familiar to audiences in its different forms.
Within a few bars of Joc cu bâtă, it became abundantly clear that not only were we in for a musical treat in terms of performance, but that we were listening to a superb instrument. It was made by the nineteenth-century luthier Enrico Ceruti, considered to be the last of the traditional Cremonese violin makers. Highlights included warm and rich tone in the opening piece, highly adept articulation, charm and grace in Brâul, an ethereal yet wonderfully controlled use of harmonics in Pê loc, Gypsy rhythms and passions in Buciumeana, and a most vivid sense of dance, movement and an unbridled sense of fun in Poargâ românească, and Mărunţel which completes the set.
Huw Watkins is not just a much sought-after pianist and accompanist, but a composer in his own right. He has been described as one of the most well rounded composer-musicians in the UK. The pre-concert talk revealed that there was a musical bond between violinist and accompanist which a number of years working together had clearly spawned. By way of demonstration, Milwidsky continued with Watkins’s two pieces for violin and piano, Arietta and Romance. He briefly describes Arietta as ‘a quiet moment of introspection, where the violin’s melody unfolds slowly, suspended above the piano’s gentle harmonic web’. In Milwidsky’s eminently sensitive hands, it would simply appear superfluous to comment further; the same very much applies to her equally exquisite performance of Romance.
The artists had entitled their programme Virtuoso Violin. There have already been many moments where mastery is clearly germane to the musical argument, virtuosity and Nicolò Paganini would very much seem to go hand-in-hand in the world of violinists. That is perhaps nowhere more so than in Caprice No.24, widely considered one of the most difficult mainstream pieces ever written for solo violin. It contains a plethora of parallel octaves and rapid shifting that covers many intervals, extremely fast scales and arpeggios, left-hand pizzicato, high positions, quick string crossing, as well as many double stops, including thirds and tenths – all cast as a theme, eleven variations and a finale.
Milwidsky gave a truly stunning all-round performance. She seemed to make light of the bristling technical challenges in almost every bar, but never to the point that the composer’s original intention was not realised. The playing shed some of the work’s demonic magic – rather like finding out how the ‘Saw a Woman in Half’ illusion is actually quite easily managed.
This was underlined, moreover, by Milwidsky’s choice not to end her first half on such a tour de force and retire to the green room to regroup and recharge the batteries. Instead, she continued with another work for solo violin, Huw Watkins’s Partita, originally written for the Alina Ibragimova, a BBC New Generation Artist in the 2005-2007 cohort. Watkins’s twelve-minute work is set in five movements – Maestoso, Lento ma non troppo, Lento, Comodo, Allegro molto – and seeks to combine three deftly-wrought sections, with interludes of improvisatory adroitness. Milwidsky’s virtuosity was again abundant in the performance, which, on this occasion, was also totally in synch with the intellectual demands of the composer’s score. This was yet again a quite superb reading; a second hearing could very much enhance it at some time in the future.
Milwidsky opened the second half with arguably the highlight of the evening, Elgar’s glorious Violin Sonata in E minor, which he described thus: ‘The first movement is bold and vigorous, then a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for the violin […] they say it is as good or better than anything I have done in the expressive way […] the last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the second symphony.’ From the harmonic aspect alone, many features in the score are worthy of comment, as is the abundance of technical difficulties along the way, for the violinist in particular, but for me this work is all about heartfelt passion of the pure Elgarian variety. It is a unique experience that ideally needs to be felt and fashioned from a raft of life experiences, something that the youngest artist is less likely to empathise with, at least initially.
This was simply not the case in Mathilde Milwidsky and Huw Watkins’s wonderful playing. The spiritual empathy we had picked up on during the pre-concert talk now revealed itself in all its glory. The artists were as one throughout. They drew the audience into the intimacy of a precious performance, as the composer’s beautifully-crafted score simply wafted through the air-conditioned air.
We have already had a taste of Milwidsky’s uncanny feel for instrumental colour when we were transported to a gypsy dance somewhere in Romania, courtesy of Béla Bartók. We returned to that environment for the final piece on offer, Ravel’s Tzigane for violin and piano. The composer’s last essay in the Hungarian style, it arguably represents the all-time apotheosis on stylised Gypsy music. The long opening cadenza for violin takes in fact nearly half of the total time. Its virtuoso features consist principally of intense high-position work on the G string, together with octaves and other multiple stops, tremolos and arpeggios. Harmonics and further fireworks are left for the fast section – a more dazzling collection of left-hand pizzicato that had not been heard since Paganini’s day.
The performance, needless to say, was a tour de force. Along with the other works heard during the recital, it made this second concert in the Musica Viva Series probably the finest violin and piano duo recital heard in the city for a number of years.
Plymouth audiences must feel greatly indebted to the University, and particularly its Arts Institute, but equally to the insight and vision of director Bob Taub. He once more got high-calibre artists to a city that has of late seemed deprived of performances at this level of expertise and musicianship.
At the moment, the Steinway Grand still seems at its best in chamber music ensembles, but the removal of some of the remaining wall panels might prove more receptive to enhancing the sound of a solo piano.
Oh, and we used to have the same old music stands at school, many years ago – just saying.
Philip R Buttall