Alissa Margulis & Luís Magalhães
Ysaÿe / Strauss / Dvořák / Respighi

Semper-Aula, ETH, Zurich, 2019-10-08

3-star rating

2019-10-14 — Original posting

Hochromantisches und gemäßigte Moderne in der Semper-Aula — Zusammenfassung

Das Programm dieses Duo-Abends in der Semper-Aula der ETH Zürich versprach “Romantik und Moderne”. Dies traf nur bedingt zu, da Alissa Margulis und Luís Magalhães die Violinsonate von Ottorino Respighi durch die eher neoklassizistische zweite Sonate von Sergey Prokofiev ersetzten. Letzteres ist ein heiteres, eher unbeschwertes Werk, das seinen Ursprung als Flötensonate nicht verleugnet. Es ist folglich modern vor allem aus der Zeit der Entstehung.

Zuvor jedoch wurde das Programm dem Titel durchaus gerecht. Zuerst das hochromantische Poème élégiaque von Eugène Ysaÿe. Danach folgte die sehr virtuose, hinreißende Sonate von Richard Strauss. Es ist dies ein brilliantes Meisterwerk und Höhepunkt nicht nur im Programm, sondern auch unter den Violinsonaten generell. Nach der Pause dann—titelgerecht—die vier 4 Romantischen Stücke, op.75 von Antonín Dvořák.

Den Abschluss machte eine kurze, frühromantische Zugabe—ein Siciliano von Maria-Theresia von Paradis: eine flüchtige, beschauliche Begegnung mit einer unbekannten Komponistin, deren Name beinahe ausschließlich dadurch weiterlebt, dass Mozart in ihrem Auftrag ein Klavierkonzert geschrieben hat.

Auch mit dem bedauerlichen Wegfall von Respighis wenig gespielter Sonate resultierte ein abwechslungsreiches Programm. Es war stimmig nicht nur aus der Sicht des Publikums, sondern auch unter dem Gesichtspunkt des Wechsels von Virtuosität und stimmungsvollen, lyrischen Segmenten.

Table of contents


And here I was in another concert in the series Musical Discovery / Musik an der ETH und UZH, this time again at the venerable Semper Aula of the ETHZ (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich). Interestingly, the concert was not nearly sold out, despite the small venue (for audiences up to 99 only): hard to tell whether this was because of competing events, or whether duo recitals are simply less attractive that piano recitals or performances of bigger chamber music formations? I don’t think that the reason was in the absence of “big names” on the podium. I have seen this venue full (or nearly full) with other, lesser known artists…


Alissa Margulis

The violinist Alissa Margulis was born 1981 in Freiburg, Germany, into a family of Russian musicians. At age 4, she started learning both piano and violin. After her first public appearance at age 7, she was only 10 when she won first prizes at the International Louis Spohr Competition for Young Violinists, as well as at the German National Competition “Jugend musiziert. After studies with Zakhar Bron (*1947) in Lübeck and Cologne, she went on to study with Augustin Dumay (*1949, see also Wikipedia) in Brussels. She followed up attending master classes with numerous teachers of highest international reputation. She continues to study today, with Pavel Vernikov and Juliaen Rachlin (*1974).

As a mature artist, Alissa Margulis has won prizes at additional international competitions in Italy (3), Poland, Russia, Japan, and South Africa. The artist performs on a violin dated 1754, by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786).

Luís Magalhães

The Portuguese pianist Luís Magalhães is mostly known as part of the TwoPianists Piano Duo, see my report from their concert at the ETH in Zurich on 2015-11-24. This is a partnership with the South African pianist Nina Schumann. TwoPianists is not just a piano duo, but also an artists’ agency and recording company. For more information on Luís Magalhães see my earlier review.

Luís Magalhães played on the venue’s Steinway D-274 concert grand. An instrument in excellent condition. I was very pleased to note that Luís Magelhães kept the lid almost closed throughout the concert: highly appreciated! Only too often, pianists in duo performances seemingly don’t care about the instrumental balance, playing with open lid.


The program of the two artists included the following compositions:

In the initial announcement, the last position wasn’t the Sonata by Prokofiev, but rather the Violin Sonata in B minor, P.110 (1917) by Ottorino Respighi (1879 – 1936). A pity that we didn’t get to hear Respighi’s little known, but beautiful and highly romantic sonata!

Concert & Review

Eugène Ysaÿe (1865 – 1918): Poème élégiaque in D minor, op.12

Eugène Ysaÿe (1865 – 1918) originally composed Poème élégiaque in D minor, op.12 for violin and orchestra, but he also published a version for violin and piano. This is the first one of nine “poems” by this composer. This poème is dedicated to Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924). It served as inspiration for the famous Poème for violin and orchestra, op.25 by Ernest Chausson (1855 – 1899).

One prominent feature of the Poème élégiaque in D minor is that the G-string is tuned down by a full tone, to F (scordatura). The associated extension of the range by one tone is less important than the resulting change in color: due to the lower tension on the lowest string, the instrument sounds darker, somewhat matte at the low end of the tonal range, volume & projection are slightly reduced. In the score, Ysaÿe denotes which sections are written for the G (F) string. These therefore sound a tone lower than written.

The Performance

Let me continue about the above and talk about the violin first. I instantly noted the warm tone of the Guadagnini violin, the artist’s mellow, flowing articulation, the expressive tone. Alissa Margulis used a vibrato that was relatively fast, but certainly fine in amplitude (and adequate for music by Eugène Ysaÿe). The scordatura made the G (F) string sound even more mellow, darker, and slightly nasal, close to the typical sound of a viola. The intonation in general was mostly fine, though on the G (F) string, it seemed more challenging, requiring a conscious effort, as one could guess from the occasional, noticeably slower position changes on that string.

As for Luís Magalhães’ accompaniment: the balance never was an issue (thanks for not playing with open lid!). However, at the same time, the piano part sounded somewhat obscured, blurred, lacking contours, as if played with an excess of sustain pedal. I did not check the use of pedals, but I suspect that with this instrument and in this venue, (half-)closing the lid may have impacted the sonority (or rather: the clarity). I can’t remember any instance where that Steinway sounded so blurred. On the other hand, the piano accompaniment was fitting the mellow articulation on the violin. It never was drowning the violin in its sonority. And it actually helped exposing the special coloring of the violin’s G (F) string.

Challenges with Scordatura

One last remark in the violin & tuning: lowering the intonation of one string by a full tone just for this one piece, and immediately prior to starting may have caused the tuning to degrade over the course of the Poème, possibly even also affecting the other strings. Plus, the change back to normal tuning for the subsequent piece (Strauss) may have led to similar problems then. Scordatura comes with its set of challenges!

Rating: ★★★

Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949): Sonata for Violin and Piano in E♭ major, op.18, TrV 151

I have posted descriptive remarks on the Sonata for violin and piano in E♭ major, op.18, by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) in an earlier post, where I compared a few recordings. In addition, I have posted reports on several concert performances of this sonata. Therefore, here, I’m limiting my description to the list of the movements:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo (4/4)
  2. Improvisation: Andante cantabile (4/4)
  3. Finale: Andante (6/8) — Allegro (3/4)

Richard Strauss composed the sonata in 1888.

The Performance

I. Allegro ma non troppo (4/4)

The poignant, fanfare-like opening on the piano—so typical of Strauss—seemed to open the door to one of the most fantastic pieces in the entire violin sonata repertoire. To my disappointment, Alissa Margulis applied a similar, soft articulation as in the opening piece, giving her instrument a relatively mellow sound. True, the violin part starts p. However, with Strauss’ full-fingered, virtuosic and wide-spanning piano part, this should really not be too soft. Also later, when the violin voice builds up to f, I felt that this part deserved a little more volume. And more clarity, also in the intonation. I felt that Luís Magalhães was adapting to the violin sonority by softening his touch, maybe using more sustain pedal, sometimes a little extra arpeggiando articulation, avoiding harshness and poignancy.

While Luís Magalhães often rose his “voice” to to clarity and “Straussian pungency”, Alissa Margulis kept contours and phrasing / agogics somewhat blurred. I felt that more clarity in articulation and dynamics would have unleashed extra dramatic potential in this movement. This may also have been a question of adapting to the acoustics of the venue?

II. Improvisation: Andante cantabile (4/4)

Sure, using vibrato is fine in this music. Here, however, the violinist may have been a bit excessive, to the point, where—in combination with the occasional portamento—this also affected the intonation. I often found the agogics, the rubato rather excessive. One example: the strong rallentando towards the fermata in bar 12 in the piano, or later in both parts.

In the second part of the movement, where both play pp (the violin with mute), I didn’t quite feel the grazioso in the piano part, the atmospheric, relaxed calm, the serenity with the “bird calls” in the right hand. The two instruments hardly seemed to merge into a single voice.

III. Finale: Andante (6/8) — Allegro (3/4)

I liked the beautiful sonority in the (pp) piano introduction: a beautiful Steinway grand at its best! The Allegro part is again highly virtuosic in the piano, while the violin can bloom in the beauty, the expressive richness of Strauss’ melodies. Still, maybe it was the acoustics, the reverberation (or insufficient adapting to the acoustics?) that (in my opinion) made the performance lack brilliance, maybe also clarity, contours and poignancy? True, it is not only one of the most beautiful violin sonatas in the entire literature, but also one of the most difficult and challenging…

Overall Rating: ★★★

Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904): 4 Romantic Pieces in G minor, op.75, B.150

Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) composed his 4 Romantic Pieces in G minor, op.75, B.150, in January 1887. The Romantic Pieces (Romantické kusy) are “descendants” of an earlier composition, a set of Four Miniatures for two violins and viola, op.75a, B.149. In their musical substance, the “Pieces” are identical to the “Miniatures”, with the exception of changes in the harmony in 7 bars of No.1, an extended ending in No.3, and changes of the tempo annotations in Nos. 1 – 3:

  • I. Allegro moderato in B♭ major, 4/4
  • II. Allegro maestoso in D minor, 2/4
  • III. Allegro appassionato in B♭ major, 4/4
  • IV. Larghetto in G minor, 9/8

The Performance

I. Allegro moderato

Alissa Margulis produced a warm, mellow tone on her violin that suited Dvořák’s music very well. Very expressive, lyrical playing, almost too romantic—one may attribute the occasional, abundant portamento to the Zeitgeist of the late 19th century. Luís Magalhães supported that interpretation with an inconspicuous, harmonious and compassionate accompaniment.

II. Allegro maestoso

Clearly, in this music, Alissa Margulis felt more “at home” than in the pieces prior to the intermission. She could play out the strengths of her instrument, trump up in the ff arpeggio fanfares, while Luís Magalhães carefully kept the sound of the concert grand relatively mellow. The intonation was excellent in general. The unfortunate exception was the long, high D in the final bar. A famous violinist once stated that there is no such thing as pure intonation on the violin. Rather, “there is only the option of instantaneous correction”. Well, here, it wasn’t instantaneous…

III. Allegro appassionato

I really liked Alissa Margulis’ performance here. It was slowly building up to the very expressive climax at the end of the second repeat segment. Her octave parallels (at this climax) were exceptionally clean!

IV. Larghetto

In Alissa Margulis’ hands, Dvořák’s molto espressivo in lyrical segments sounded fairly wobbly, occasionally a strong fluttering. She seemed to concentrate on the pieces’ atmosphere. I personally missed a little extra melodic clarity (and maybe intensity). The difficulty in this piece is that the melody is broken down into isolated, short motifs—”binding those together” isn’t easy.

Overall Rating: ★★★

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953): Violin Sonata No.2 in D major, op.94bis

Among the two violin sonatas by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953), the second one, the Violin Sonata No.2 in D major, op.94bis started off as Flute Sonata in D major, op.94. There are four movements:

  1. Moderato
  2. Scherzo: Presto – Poco più mosso – Tempo I
  3. Andante
  4. Allegro con brio – Poco meno mosso – Tempo I – Poco meno mosso – Allegro con brio

For more information on the composition see also my brief CD review about Prokofiev’s op.94bis. In addition, this is the second time I heard that sonata in a live concert. The previous one was merely a month ago, on 2019-09-10 in Lucerne. See my concert report for additional information on the sonata.

The Performance

I. Moderato

Not surprisingly, Alissa Margulis kept her relatively soft articulation. The violin tone in the (repeated) exposition felt rather volatile, occasionally “airy”, rarely even a tad “papery”, especially in the high range. Maybe as result of an attempt to retain some “flute attitude”, the violin seemed to lack radiance, brilliance in the sound. The most challenging part of this sonata isn’t so much in virtuosity, but in the intonation, as the hand moves between the extremes on the fingerboard.

When (mostly) the artists were looking into their sheet music (violin) or the tablet computer (piano), I could barely observe their facial expression. As far as I could tell from the left side of the audience, there was barely any attempt to communicate with the audience, or even just to convey any emotions (let alone enthusiasm) to the audience (other than through the music?).

II. Scherzo: Presto – Poco più mosso – Tempo I

A highly virtuosic movement! Excellent piano playing, very agile, with skittish, coquettish accents / syncopes! Fun music, for sure, though without exaggerations or attempts to turn this into a caricature. The violin part is equally demanding with its rapid figures, often in extreme positions. Not all of the fast motifs were entirely clear in the articulation. However, this could also have been a consequence of the reverberating acoustics. My impression was that the Guadagnini could not play out all of its potential in brilliance and clarity, except for the moments of intensity in cantilenas.

Prokofiev’s music, of course, was highly enthralling, fascinating, capturing the listener’s attention!

III. Andante

A calm, serene, reflective movement. My only quibble was that I expected / hoped for the violinist to exert more indulgence in the beautiful cantilenas. The musical textures are often scarce, simple. Yet, this movement could not be farther from the austere (let alone grim) atmosphere in some of Prokofiev’s other compositions!

IV. Allegro con brio – Poco meno mosso – Tempo I – Poco meno mosso – Allegro con brio

Another popular, joy- and playful fun movement closes the sonata, bringing back memories from “Peter and the Wolf”, op.67. It is definitely also virtuosic, not without challenges. Indeed, I did note occasional intonation mishaps and superficialities on the violin. And: couldn’t / shouldn’t there have been more structure / phrasing, more narrative in the violin part? Or was it just my memory of other interpretations?

Certainly, Luís Magalhães was successful in ending the recital with a brilliant performance. I would call it his best that evening: he was taking the lead, even dominating the scene: excellent playing!

Overall Rating: ★★★

Encore — Maria-Theresia von Paradis: Sicilienne in E♭ major

In his closing notes, Luís Magalhães announced a little encore, a Sicilienne in E♭ major by the Austrian musician and composer Maria-Theresia von Paradis (1759 – 1824). That’s a composer that is largely unknown today. She was the daughter of Joseph Anton von Paradis, Imperial Secretary of Commerce and Court Council to the Empress Maria Theresia (1717 – 1780), for whom she was named. Maria-Theresia von Paradis lost her eyesight at very early age. She is known for having commissioned a piano concerto (presumably the No.18 in B♭ major, K.456) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1746 – 1791).

A beautiful, melancholic and reflective piece. It is amazingly romantic for the time of its creation. Indeed, I felt that it anticipates music from the middle of the 19th century! Alissa Margulis performed this with mute throughout. The score has “opt. con sordino“. However, the mute amplified the warmth, the melancholic atmosphere in this music: an excellent way to end the recital, thanks!

Alissa Margulis, Luís Magalhães @ Semper-Aula, ETH, Zurich, 2019-10-08 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Alissa Margulis, Luís Magalhães @ Semper-Aula, ETH, Zurich, 2019-10-08 (© Rolf Kyburz)

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