Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Ibragimova/Tiberghien - Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin, 27 October 2009

Wigmore Hall

No.1 in D major, op.12 no.1
No.4 in A minor, op.23
No.8 in G major, op.30 no.3
No.7 in C minor, op.30 no.2

Alina Ibragimova (violin)
Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

This selection of four Beethoven violin sonatas was for the most part impressive, though the first half was perhaps more consistently impressive than the second – in part, I suspect, a reflection of the greater musical challenges posed by the op.30 works. Though still a young man’s music, it is by no means clear whether young artists are always best placed to perform them.

Of the three op.30 sonatas, two were performed: the third and the second, in that order. The G major, op.30 no.3, certainly had its moments – and, to be fair, rather more than that, the first movement proving especially successful. Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien rightly took it fast, without sounding unduly forced. Indeed, this movement sounded full of life, full of the openness G major implies, especially for a violin. And when the dominant was reached, there were definite echoes of the contemporary Pastoral sonata for piano, op.28, not least in the handling of the warm syncopations. However, particularly during the development section, I wondered whether the performers might fruitfully have allowed for a little fluctuation in terms of tempo. The opening of the second movement was exceptional in that Tiberghien sounded somewhat heavy-handed: not a problem elsewhere in the recital. That opening piano statement was also a little plain, though Ibragimova’s response was more differentiated. The tempo, however, simply sounded too fast: the music needed to relax, to show an easy – a deceptively easy – grace. The finale, though technically impressive, and with some exquisite moments, could be unrelenting at times.

The C minor sonata opened with a magnificently mysterious piano introduction prior to the opening of the Beethovenian floodgates. Yet open though they did, the Beethoven of this movement remained somewhat Apollonian version; Dionysus never quite made his presence felt. Technically, there was much at which to marvel, not least Ibragimova’s flawless double-stopping, yet there was sometimes, though by no means always, a sense of two very good performances in tandem rather than of true interaction between the two players. The Adagio cantabile reminded me once again quite how difficult Beethoven’s slow movements are. This was a valiant attempt, but the noble simplicity at which any performance must strain, that simplicity of which an unbroken line must be part, was not quite achieved. Sadly, the final bars degenerated into an opportunity for to cough along with Cédric and Alina. In the scherzo, the players seemed to be trying a bit too hard; both sounded a bit too nervy. The trio proved hard-driven, contributing to an impression of grimacing rather than smiling at Beethoven’s gruff humour. By contrast, the finale was, in itself, a triumph. I very much liked the rough edges of this disruptied – or disrupted? – movement. Is it early Beethoven or Romantic Beethoven? It is of course both, as the players showed they understood. Their performances exhibited a virtuosity that was furious but not attention-seeking.

Nevertheless, it was the first two performances that I found more consistently satisfying. Op.12 no.1 had a somewhat shaky opening, not from Tiberghien, who sounded magnificent throughout, but in terms of Ibragimova’s uncharacteristically steely, unmodulated tone, at least as far as the second subject. But otherwise this was and sounded like a young man’s music. The second movement instantly sounded more like true chamber music, initially led but not dominated by Tiberghien, until Ibragimova’s gracious elevation for the second variation. A violent eruption characterised both players’ vision of the third variation, whilst its successor exhibited an almost Schubertian rocking melancholy in the piano part, married to richness of tone in the violin’s lyricism. The finale had just the right sense of going beyond Mozart, his spirit both honoured and slightly traduced, especially in the insistence of those utterly characteristic Beethovenian syncopations. Tiberghien’s Tiggerish enthusiasm served this music extremely well.

The A minor sonata, op.23, opened in nervy fashion without falling into the trap of sounding short-winded, for a good sense of line pervaded the work. Beethoven’s contrapuntal mastery was relished by both players, especially during the first two movements; there were times when Brahms almost seemed to be knocking on the door – and quite right too. The second movement was certainly not slow, but nor was it rushed; the players managed the tricky business of poise and flow. Here, there was a true sense of give and take between them. My sole reservation – and not only here – was a rather throwaway ending, which verged upon mannerism. The Romantic urgency that characterised the finale looked forward to the Kreutzer sonata, but there was also a more classically Mozartian aspect to the player’s conception (not that Mozart cannot be Romantic, of course). There was also an open spirit to be heard that sounded authentically – in the best, not the modern debased, sense – Beethovenian. If that was not always captured quite so clearly later on, to do so at all was a sign that Ibragimova and Tibergien are Beethoven performers to be reckoned with.