Friday 28 March 2014

Josefowicz/Novacek - Schubert, Stravinsky, and Kurtág, 27 March 2014

Milton Court Concert Hall

Schubert – Violin Sonata in A major, D 574
Stravinsky – Duo concertant
Chanson russe, arr. Samuel Dushkin
Kurtág – Tre pezzi, op.14e
Schubert – Rondo in B minor, D 895

Leila Josefowicz (violin)
John Novacek (piano)

First experiences can prove misleading. Schubert’s A major Violin Sonata, D 574, received a disappointing performance, at least so far as Leila Josefowicz was concerned, but the rest of this recital proved a far more exhilarating experience. Tempi were well chosen in the Schubert, the first movement combining, as the composer requested, Allegro and moderato. John Novacek offered mellow piano tone, as close as a Steinway – a Bösendorfer is surely preferable here – can come to what sounds ‘right’ for Schubert. Josefowicz’s tone, by contrast, varied in seemingly arbitrary fashion, sometimes silvery, sometimes richer, but often quite out of tune. Rhythms were well sprung in the scherzo, which benefited from greater intensity. However, intonational difficulties were all too apparent in the trio. The Andantino flowed well, though again Josefowicz struggled to stay in tune; perhaps surprisingly, the double-stopped passages were not a problem. Novacek, however, offered a supportive bedrock. The finale revived the scherzo’s rhythmic thrust, though the players proved perfectly capable of relaxing too.

It was as if a new violinist had come onstage for Stravinsky’s Duo concertant – and so it would remain. The opening ‘Cantilène’ was properly astringent at times, but also passionate where required. Once past a few difficulties in the opening bars, Josefowicz’s tuning would never again prove a problem. Novacek’s piano part proved motoric, though not aggressively so; wisely, aggression was saved for later. The first ‘Eglogue’ received a wonderfully cool opening, a miraculous ‘Russian’-sounding thaw ensuing. By now, Josefowicz’s playing was not only virtuosic but very well ‘centred’. ‘Eglogue II’ showed again that, beneath ice-cold neo-Classicism, there continued to bear a decidedly Russian heart. (French?) Baroque ghosts added a splendid twist through piano ornamentation. The ‘Gigue’ was spar and spiky, the aggression of Stravinsky’s mechanisms seeming to work itself out of its own volition. Finally came a beautifully statuesque ‘Dithyrambe’: neo-Classical in a more literal sense, if we consider an imagined ancient Greece (via Winckelmann?) rather than Mozart. There was heat, though, in the coolness.

Following the interval, Samuel Dushkin’s arrangement of the ‘Chanson russe’ from Mavra offered a very different perspective upon Stravinsky: catchy and, yes, songful, with a flavour I am almost tempted, however inaccurately, to call ‘gypsy’. It made for a slightly odd introduction to Kurtág’s Tre pezzi, save for their shared origins in vocal music. No matter: here the performances were again excellent. The first, ‘Öd und traurig’, offered a calm evocation of lineage from Webern, in a beautifully-controlled performance. Webern again came to the fore in the shard-like opening to the second, ‘Vivo’, though the ensuing violence was perhaps more Bartók-like. In reality, the language is of course very much Kurtág’s own – and so it sounded. A frozen landscape in which, again, every note counted was traced in the third piece, ‘Aus der Ferne’. Tuning, I might add, was impeccable throughout: crucial in the expression of those utterly haunting harmonies. As for those Webern-like sighs, whether in a single part, or passed between violin and piano, they spoke volumes.

I opened by saying that first experiences could prove misleading. Having had an unhappy experience with a performance earlier this month of Schubert’s B minor Rondo, I cannot say that I was looking forward to this, especially given Josefowicz’s problems in the first Schubert piece. However, these players gave as convincing an account as one might reasonably have hoped for. It is no masterpiece; it goes on for far too long, is frankly episodic, and is not free of note-spinning. (Extraordinary to think what else Schubert was writing in 1826!) But in a tauter, grander, generally more idiomatic performance, it could still be enjoyed. It needs the kind of abandon heard here and therefore made a winning end to a mostly distinguished recital.