César Franck’s 1886 Violin Sonata is heard in a variety of forms – there are version for viola, cello, flute and even tuba – but it is in the original violin form that the work has the most power, particularly in the hands of a violinist as good as Pinchas Zukerman. Joined by Angela Cheng on the piano, Zukerman opened the second concert of the Musica Viva Festival with the Romantic powerhouse, more than demonstrating why he has received such accolades as a violinist.
Zukerman’s sound was commanding – mesmerisingly so – as he plunged into Franck’s sweeping melodic lines. There was no body lost in his molten high register, and his sound grew throatier as the drama of the second movement built, Cheng’s piano roiling underneath. The pair’s ensemble was organic and impeccable – though perhaps more sound from the piano would have given the work more of a sense of equal partnership, Zukerman was certainly never in any danger of being swamped.
As it was, though, it’s rare to hear a violin and piano duo sound so powerful, Zukerman’s vibrato throbbing and his tasteful slides giving the melodies a liquid quality. Incisive double-stops cut through the recitative that opens the third movement, while the final movement blazed, Zukerman’s sound so captivating you had to focus not to miss Cheng’s brightly shimmering piano lines.
The fleet-footed first movement of Anders Koppel’s jazz-infused Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet was a shift in both mood and sound world, in the world premiere of this arrangement, which was originally written for the mezzo saxophone, invented in 2008. Saxophonist Amy Dickson joined the Goldner String Quartet, moving in and out of the ensemble’s texture – from her cello-like low notes to slinky melodies in her honeyed high register.
The Goldners’ exactitude gave the work plenty of rhythmic bounce and as soloist, Dickson melded with the ensemble to weave rich timbres rather than hog the spotlight concerto-style. The chorale-like strings and swaying of the slow movement – inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s mysterious, desolate painting Island of the Dead – provided a moment of introspection before the dance, full of deft syncopations, started up again to bring the work to a climax. A highlight of the last movement: Dickson’s duetting with cellist Julian Smiles.
Arcadia Winds – the first ensemble to go through Musica Viva’s Futuremakers programme – took the stage after interval to perform Australian clarinettist and composer Paul Dean’s Jasper and Charlie for wind quintet, a frantic work of biting accents, flying fingers and mad bassoon solos. Matthew Kneale was the star of this performance, painting energetically from a varied palette of bassoon timbres from buzzing frenzies of fast notes to the instrument’s warm low register and singing high. If at times the work felt right on the edge of what was technically comfortable for the ensemble, that just heightened the sense of drama – certainly an ensemble to keep an eye on.
Lilting piano and cello lines open Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No 2, a folky addition to the repertoire composed the year after Franck’s Violin Sonata. Pianist Lambert Orkis joined Britain’s Elias Quartet in a performance that argued forcefully that this piece was much more than a simple money-spinner for Dvořák and his publisher. The Elias Quartet’s ensemble work had an easy energy and Orkis glistened on the piano.
Positioned behind the strings, the piano sounded distant and muted from where I was sitting, but this didn’t stop Orkis from creating an achingly beautiful, dream-like atmosphere in the melancholy moments of the Dumka, which comes across as almost tango-like at times.
The third movement – a furiant – was frisky in the opening, becoming more impassioned as it went along. As Musica Viva’s Katherine Kemp so aptly described it in her programme note, a furiant is “a scherzo that’s been drinking bootleg liquor from the barn next door with predictable results, including a little lie down in the middle.” The final movement brought more drama, Sarah Bittloch’s heartfelt violin melodies and burnished viola solos from Martin Saving giving way to a bright, almost naïve, ending.
With two more concerts today and more to come tomorrow, the Musica Viva Festival is well underway and if the standard continues to be this high, it’s not one to miss.
The Musica Viva Festival 2017 continues until Sunday April 23