Mathilde Milwidsky and Huw Watkins return in triumph to University of Plymouth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Virtuoso Violin: Mathilde Milwidsky (violin), Huw Watkins (piano). Levinsky Hall, University of Plymouth, 11.11.2023. (PRB)

Mathilde Milwidsky and Huw Watkins © Philip R Buttall

Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending for violin and piano
Webern – Four Pieces for violin and piano
Beethoven – Sonata for violin and piano in A minor, Op.23
Ysaÿe – Sonata for solo violin in D minor, Op.27 No.3 ‘Ballade’
Franck – Sonata in A major for violin and piano

It was one year less a day ago that I was in the same seat, waiting for the second concert in The Arts Institute’s Musica Viva series to begin. For me, like for many of those then present in the University of Plymouth’s Levinsky Hall, pianist/composer Huw Watkins and young British violinist Mathilde Milwidsky may not have been household names. But the recital was a tremendous success (review here), and that brought the superb duo back.

Institute Director of Music Dr Robert Taub and the two guests had the customary pre-concert talk. Bob has that knack for pertinent questions which can be appreciated at all levels. There always is a healthy mix of fact and anecdote about the works ahead, and artists can talk about the programme subjectively – a fascinating aspect of these musical ‘prenuptials’. The three artists reappeared after a brief break, Taub now in the role of page-turner, a personable, welcoming touch.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s much-loved Lark Ascending is best known as a work for violin and orchestra, but it was conceived for violin and piano in 1914. That was not performed until 1920, a year before the familiar version appeared. As here, the composer favoured the subtitle ‘A Romance’ for any contemplative slow piece.

All along, the violinist showed a firm command of dynamic nuances and shadings. The technology available in this former lecture theatre might have alowed a background with the swooping gyrations of a lark; the score shows them as wonderfully supple melismas and cadenzas which capture the flight to perfection. But Mathilde Milwidsky’s depiction in sound made multi-media assistance unnecessary with her masterful, heartfelt performance.

I prefer the orchestral version, not only because solo woodwinds can give a more individual character to each melody or sub-melody. At the end of the day, the piano is a percussion instrument. It can play the extended chords as accompaniment, but the sound begins to die away immediately, even if the sustaining pedal offers assistance. An orchestra, on the other hand, gives a virtually continuous cushion-like backing, over which the soloist can more freely luxuriate, rather like taking a hot bath instead a cooler bath continually topped up. (The organ might be a viable alternative.)

Picture now a sauna-style jump from that comforting bath into ice-cold water. That happens when one follows Vaughan Williams’s quasi-impressionist view of his native Cotswolds with the stark, expressionist world and tonalities of Anton Webern’s Four Pieces (Sehr langsam, Rasch, Sehr langsam, Bewegt).

Strangely, this apparently bizarre juxtaposition worked well. The first piece demonstrated Milwidsky’s instinctive fine use of dynamics. Both instruments encounter dynamics from ppp to fff, with many pp or ppp passages. And – as the pre-concert talk informed us – phrases like kaum hörbar (barely audible) or wie ein Hauch (like a breath) are a regular feature of Webern’s style, where there is so much detail in essentially so little music. The players conveyed it with elegant refinement, and with panache in the faster movements two and four.

Two of Beethoven’s violin/piano duos are widely known, those with the catchy names Spring and Kreutzer. He actually wrote ten violin sonatas with opus numbers. There is a path from works for piano with an obbligato violin part to the almost concerto-like Kreutzer Sonata, with two equal protagonists in the musical argument.

The Fourth Sonata is an attractive work. The violin tends to avoid the dizzying tessitura or note compass of later works, but it still is integral to the action. From the opening Presto to the closing Allegro molto, the players were as one here. The tautness of ensemble and utmost precision in some decidedly challenging passagework contributed to the success of the reading. Hugely idiomatic, here was the young Beethoven at his absolute best, just a year after his First Symphony, and tonight’s dynamic duo could not have given it more.

The second half of the concert began with a rest for Huw Watkins. Mathilde Milwidsky performed Eugène Ysaÿe’s Third Sonata ‘Ballade’ from 1923, dedicated to Georges Enescu, perhaps played most often of the six. It is conceived in two sections; a slow introduction in the manner of a recitative hints at some of the motifs heard later. Harmonically it makes use of the whole-tone scale, disjunct melodic leaps, and much dissonance and chromaticism – high demands on any violinist. The highly imaginative writing, with frequent intricate double and triple stops, allowed Milwidsky almost to produce the illusion of a string quartet playing – all this from memory, in a seven-and-a-half-minute complex score.

The crowning glory was yet to come: César Franck’s Sonata in A major, one of his best-known works, and generally considered one of the finest ever in the genre. It is a distillation of his richly idiosyncratic harmonic language with the Classical traditions he valued so highly, all in a cyclic framework.

We expected Mathilde Milwidsky to play on a Guadagnini violin, as her biography tells us. The instrument was sadly unavailable, but she can elicit a gloriously rich tone from any instrument, as for instance here, in the serenely beautiful opening Allegretto ben marcato.

Huw Watkins said earlier that Franck, a very fine organist, must have been a ‘pretty good pianist’, too. The ensuing Allegro confirms. The violin has more than its fair share of difficulties, but it is the extremely challenging piano part that sets this movement apart, with extended passages of bravura, concerto-like writing. Watkins was up to the challenge. He despatched his part with élan, and gave the perfect foil to the violinist’s matching virtuosity.

The players were perfectly at home in Ben moderato: Recitativo-Fantasia, the improvisatory (somewhat slight) third movement, sharing the freedom of structure and expression. In the Allegretto poco mosso finale, the main melody heard in canonic imitation between the instruments recurs in a rondo-like manner. That leads to a triumphant, soaring conclusion, likely as physically tiring for the performers as it was emotionally tiring for the listeners. All in all, a wonderful performance and effective close to an evening of inspired music-making.

But the audience was not going to let the duo depart easily. They returned with an encore: Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of Debussy’s fine song Beau soir – indeed, the end of a beautiful evening!

Philip R Buttall

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