Monday 18 May 2015

Liebeck/Apekisheva - Messiaen, Prokofiev, Fauré, and Stravinsky, 17 May 2015

Wigmore Hall

Messiaen – Thème et Variations
Prokofiev – Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor, op.80
Fauré – Violin Sonata no.1 in A major, op.13
Stravinsky – Divertimento

Jack Liebeck (violin)
Katya Apekisheva (piano)

There was much to enjoy in this violin and piano recital, although Jack Liebeck took a while properly to get into his stride, his intonation and depth of tone proving somewhat variable earlier on, especially during Messiaen’s early Thème et Variations. The Theme suffered most in that respect, although there was nothing to fault in Katya Apekisheva’s despatch of the piano part. In the first variation, she offered a splendidly ‘hammerless’, post-Debussyan account, bells verily tolling and resounding. Later spikiness seemed to presage aspects of the Prokofiev sonata that would follow. The fourth variation seemed to point to Messiaen’s often overlooked Franckian inheritance in a properly full-blooded performance from both players. Indeed, the piano part seemed closer than usual to Messiaen’s organ writing. The final variation offered a taste of quintessentially Messiaenic ecstasy, notwithstanding an unfortunate slip by Liebeck.

Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata proved more consistent. The first movement revealed what we might think of as the ‘emerging chaconne’ quality of the opening theme and its consequences. This was a dark, rich-toned, yet variegated performance, the piano part astutely layered. The ghostly closing material disconcerted: the piano rock-solid, the violin casting proper doubt upon alleged certainty. Liebeck’s intonation again wavered during the second movement, but not really to the detriment of its character. Apekisheva’s performance was splendidly big-boned. Her opening una corda flurries in the third movement seemed to look back again to Debussy, as if the snow really were dancing. The violin melody that emerged above was nobly and sweetly sung. There was a winning sense of contrapuntal battle and of fun between the instruments in the final movement, before the sombre close paralleled that to the first movement. Darkness of mood and quality of musical invention worked in tandem.

Fauré’s First Violin Sonata opened the second half. From the opening of the first movement onwards, it sounded like what it is: a freer, subtler, far less obvious, precursor to the better-known Violin Sonata of César Franck (a wildly overrated work). For me, this early work is one of Fauré’s most attractive, but then I have yet to ‘get’ several of his later works, which many people whose judgement I greatly respect consider his finest. Liebeck and Apekisheva achieved an excellent balance between ‘Romantic’ ardour and hints of something cooler, subtler to come. Lightness of touch did not deny emotional weight. Motivic unity was clear without any need for (Franckian) underlining. The scherzo was especially pleasing, a light-footed impression of Gallic homage to Mendelssohn. Various tendencies were united in the finale, which yet remained true to its particular character.

Stravinsky’s Divertimento completed the programme, again in an excellent performance. The strangeness of the composer’s writing for violin registered, albeit without undue exaggeration. Here, of course, it is mixed with the strangeness of his response to Tchaikovsky. Rhythmic and melodic ghosts of The Soldier’s Tale danced in the Danses suisses, Stravinsky’s changes of mood and character very well handled. The ‘Russianness’ of the Scherzo seemed to evoke Petrushka’s Shrovetide Fair’; indeed, ballet was, quite rightly, the order of the day thereafter. Liebeck and Apekisheva showed themselves quite at home with the composer’s technical and musical demands alike.