Sunday 9 February 2014

Oliva/Schröder/Hewitt - Bach, 8 February 2014

Wigmore Hall

Flute Sonata in A major, BWV 1032
Partita no.4 in D major, BWV 828
Violin Sonata no.6 in G major, BWV 1019
Musical Offering, BWV 1079: excerpts

Andrea Oliva (flute)
Julia Schröder (violin)
Angela Hewitt (piano)

There was much to enjoy in this concert, and not only the rarity value of hearing Bach’s chamber music with the piano rather than the harpsichord. There were, however, two distinct disadvantages too – at least for me, though doubtless others will have felt differently. First, Angela Hewitt’s Fazioli piano; one’s ears become accustomed after a while, but I continue to find its brightness of tone both a little wearing and, in certain music, somewhat inappropriate. Second was Julia Schröder’s ‘period’-style playing. It was certainly not without vibrato, but was often – though by no means always – pinched of tone and rather scratchy. Perhaps the oddest thing was its variability, veering between styles for no evident reason.

Flautist Andrea Oliva, by contrast, showed himself possessed of a mellifluous tone and a true gift for unforced, telling articulation and phrasing. It certainly consoled after the Technicolor brightness of Hewitt’s introduction to the first movement of the Flute Sonata, BWV 1032. Oliva proved admirably flexible, too, though Hewitt at times, both here and elsewhere, seemed oddly unresponsive, as if intent on doing her ‘own thing’. Nevertheless, there was considerable chiaroscuro from the flute to enjoy, and also, as the movement went on, from the piano. An unhurried slow movement displayed a fine sense of contrapuntal ‘involvement’, also apparent in the clarity and direction of the finale. There was elegance, but strength too.

Hewitt had the stage to herself for the D major Partita, BWV 828. A grand, declamatory opening seemed more suited to her instrument, though darker hues at times would still have been welcome. The ‘French’ style was, however, readily apparent, and the fugal section of this first movement benefited from splendid evenness of tone. There were, however, a few seemingly arbitrary cases of agogic mannerism. Again, the piano tone sometimes seemed overly bright in the Allemande and Courante, but there could be no complaints over the time taken, nor over the clarity and subtlety of voicing. Intricacy was shown to be no mere decoration. The Air received a bright, perky reading, similarly the concluding Gigue, possessed of a strength born of security in both rhythm and harmony.

The Sonata for Violin and Keyboard, BWV 1019, was played in lively fashion, rhythmically alert, if sometimes marred by a mismatch of tone between Schröder and Hewitt. That became more of a problem in the ensuing ‘Largo’: not entirely chilly but rather oddly mixed. The solo piano ‘Allegro’ displayed a rare moment of technical fallibility for Hewitt; the piano part is admittedly tricky. Otherwise, it received a sophisticated but not-too-sophisticated performance. Hewitt’s dignified dynamic tread in the ‘Adagio’ offered a relative darkness of sonority rarely heard hitherto; Schröder’s pinched tone was rather more difficult to take. The finale proved lively and more evenly matched.

Hewitt had the stage to herself again for the two ricercars, in three and six parts, from the Musical Offering. Again, the instrument’s tone proved something of a barrier to me, especially earlier on, but there was splendid cumulative build-up in the celebrated six-part movement, which interestingly sounded far more modernist (even straining towards Webern) than its predecessor. The Trio Sonata had good balance, and the violin tone, if not rich, was at least richer. Tempi were convincing, well founded upon Hewitt’s rock-solid continuo. Oliva again proved himself a beguiling and highly sensitive musician. The emergence of the Royal Theme in all parts during the ‘Andante’ showed wit as well as compositional ingenuity, and the finale benefited from estimable dramatic thrust. This is music we hear far too infrequently.