Julia Fischer & Yulianna Avdeeva
Brahms / Szymanowski / Shostakovich
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2018-03-04
The Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva (*1985, see also Wikipedia for information) lives in the Munich area. I have written about Yulianna Avdeeva in numerous blog posts, covering both concerts (the first one dating back to 2008), as well as CD recordings. The violinist (and pianist) Julia Fischer (*1983, see again Wikipedia for additional information) also lives in Munich. I have previously written about this artist on the occasion of a concert performance in Zurich, on 2015-04-21. The two artists have become friends and are now touring Europe with a duo recital program. Julia Fischer most likely played a 1742 violin by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786). She also owns a 2011 violin by Philipp Augustin.
The concert was held in the temporary concert venue of the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft, the Tonhalle Maag. That venue does not feature a dedicated chamber music hall, just the one hall that also serves orchestral performances. Wisely, the organizers only sold seats on the balconies and in the front part (about 2/3) of the parquet. The stage gallery remained nearly empty, but the parquet seating was sold amazingly well, for a chamber music event. One can take this as a measure for the popularity of the two young artists. The fact that Yulianna Avdeeva has received parts of her education in the Zurich area (I recognized one of her teachers in the audience) certainly contributes to her popularity.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed his Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, op.100, “Thun Sonata” in 1886, during a stay in Thun, Switzerland (hence the name of the sonata). It was published as op.100 only in 1897, the year in which the composer died. It’s Brahms’ most serene, most melodic violin sonata. I have written about this in an earlier concert review, from a duo recital in Zurich, on 2015-10-13, and I have also posted a short comparison of three recordings of this piece. These posts have descriptions and additional information on the composition. Here, I’m just listing the movements:
- Allegro amabile
- Andante tranquillo — Vivace — Andante — Vivace di più — Andante — Vivace
- Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andante)
Let me start with a general remarks: the acoustics in the Tonhalle Maag are fairly good. They are fairly dry, very analytical and clear, and close to the same quality all over the venue. These are characteristics which should be very helpful for a duo recital, such as this one. My seat was in row 7, a little to the left of the center; the violin was slightly closer to my seat than the piano, and the piano sound did not reflect directly into my direction.
I was somewhat concerned when I saw that the concert grand (Steinway D-274) had its lid fully open, which in past experience almost always led to serious balance issues. I’m happy to report that for once, I was proven wrong!
I. Allegro amabile
The entire sonata is such beautiful, serene, melodic music, from beginning to end! Yet, it took me a moment to get into the sound. This is not the young, rhapsodic Brahms! And Yulianna Avdeeva took the 4-bar piano introduction not just p, but entirely sotto voce. She (once again!) astounded me with her masterfully controlled piano touch! The piano introduction actually is a full 20 bars, in which the violin only has 3 short interjections. This, and the entire movement was played with a very melodic, singing touch, with blooming, Lied-like melodies, with an overwhelming richness in soft volume shadings.
A really fascinating aspect of the performance that the piano never covered the violin. There were no balance issues at all, even when the piano part has bigger (typical Brahmsian!) gestures. This was very telling and spoke for the careful preparation, the subtle accord between the two artists. This accord wasn’t just in dynamics, from pp to the “grand gestures”, but also in the subtle agogics (within phrases, at transitions, such as at bar 137, and how fermatas were handled), and in the coordination in general (I can’t remember a moment with rhythmic disagreement!
Julia Fischer’s Guadagnini was—obviously—very well-projecting, with a clear and very even sound profile over the entire range. It’s both due to the quality of the instrument, as well as Yulianna Avdeeva’s careful volume control that she never had any issue in making her instrument heard, and throughout the evening neither the piano nor the violin ever appeared to dominate: congrats!
II. Andante tranquillo — Vivace — Andante — Vivace di più — Andante — Vivace
The middle movement alternates between Andante segments (2/4) and Scherzo-like sections (3/4). The former really had Lied character, was beautifully singing on both instruments.
What I found really excellent were the subtle transitions between the Andante and Vivace segments: really harmonious and natural. Of course, the coordination was perfect throughout. Yulianna Avdeeva took the leggiero annotation in the Vivace parts serious: it was amazing to see how much subtlety and lightness she applied! In the Vivace di più, Julia Fischer did not need to pluck forcefully to make her pizzicato heard through the piano accompaniment.
My only objection here is that to me, Julia Fischer’s vibrato was not in agreement with the simple, natural Lied tone, especially in the Andante sections. I see vibrato as an ornament that ought to be used sparingly and very consciously.
III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andante)
Right from the beginning I noted that Julia Fischer used distinctly mellow, “cloudy” articulation, almost tending towards belly notes. The second instance of the Lied theme included a rather prominent portamento / glissando. It was too strong for me, but maybe a mishap? In a way, the articulation fit the character of the movement. However, a little more “percussive” playing might not have hurt. Yulianna Avdeeva followed the dolce annotation and kept the piano part very discreet. She avoided indulging in grand gestures in the espressivo after the presentation of the theme by the violin. Overall, I had the impression of a deliberately soft, mellow interpretation. Occasionally, e.g., in the brief climax in bars 44 – 46, even a f on the violin was a bit on the soft side?
In general, the tempo in this movement was fairly fluent for a Lied movement. I found it to be a rather instrumental view. However, the tempo didn’t feel pushed and was far from being rigid. For the dolce / grazioso segment in bars 112 – 122, the artists switched to a distinctly slower pace, just to return to the original tempo at the reinvigorating, ascending piano figure in bar 123. From there on, the music was finally allowed to grow into the typical, big gestures that we all know and love with this composer!
I have one quibble. As mentioned, for my taste, Julia Fischer’s vibrato often was too nervous, at times also on the strong side. Strong vibrato</em has gradually become less popular over the recent years, and there are violinists who prove that this music can well be played with very little vibrato. With the works that followed, this is a different issue. Strong and rapid vibrato became popular over the first half of the 20th century. It was almost certainly in use at the time of the composition of these other works.
Szymanowski: “Mythes” for Violin and Piano, op.30, M.29
Around 1915, Karol Szymanowski (1882 – 1937) was interested in Greek mythology. The result of this interest is “Mythes” (Mity, Myths) for Violin and Piano, op.30, M.29, a set of three pieces, based on mythological miniatures. Szymanowski wrote these for the famous violinist Paweł Kochański (Paul Kochanski, 1887 – 1934). He dedicated the pieces to Kochanski’s wife, Zofia Kochańska.
- La Fontaine d’Aréthuse (Źródło Aretuzy, The Fountain of Arethusa)
- Narcisse (Narcyz, Narcissus)
- Dryades et Pan (Driady i Pan, Dryads and Pan)
The first movement is about the nymph Arethusa, turned into a stream, fleeing from Alpheus. The second one deals with Narcissus, in love with his reflection in the pool, turned into a flower. Finally, the last piece is about the dancing Dryads and Pan playing his pipes.
Szymanowski proudly stated that with these pieces he defined a new style, new techniques of violin playing. This is likely true, for Paul Kochanski also was advisor to Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971), Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) and other composers, when they wrote their violin works.
These “new effects” (which have since become used more often) include quarter-tone passages (III), extensive use of flageolet, also on multiple strings, glissando, glissando trills and shifting tremolos, and more. On top of that, Szymanowski “pulls the carpet under the listener” by blurring the rhythm deliberately. The first piece uses frequent and seemingly arbitrary alteration between 4/8 and 3/8 meters, in other places (II) he simultaneously uses 2/4 and 6/8 meters on the piano. Interesting music, altogether!
I. La Fontaine d’Aréthuse
Szymanowski annotates the piano introduction (Poco allegro, ppp) with “Delicatamente. Susurrando. Flessibile” (delicately, murmuring, flexibly). Apart from the changing between 4/8 and 3/8 meters and the tremolo-like texture, tempo changes (molto rallentando) increase the “suspended” rhythmic feeling in this piece. Yulianna Avdeeva manages to keep the busy piano part all sotto voce, really ppp: very atmospheric!
The violin part in this piece is very often at extremely high pitch, initially very melodic, though only momentarily tonal. Intonation (no quarter tone here) is very challenging, also because from the pitch alone, the violin is so far, so detached from the piano part. Julia Fischer’s intonation was very good; there were one or two notes that started a tad off, but she immediately corrected. Didn’t a famous violinist (Carl Flesch, if I remember correctly) state that “there is no such thing as instant pure intonation on the violin—only just instantaneous correction”?
The movement evolves into more dramatic segments, with flageolet and trill chains, double-stop flageolet, etc., then retracts into whispering pppp (con sordino). And Yulianna Avdeeva leaves the lead role to the violin, never inappropriately plays herself into the foreground, essentially just setting the atmosphere. Sure, also the piano part grows into vehement sf, sff, and sfff, prior to the fermata at , ending the 11-bar segment A tempo con passione.
Here, of course, using vibrato is not just OK, but required, especially when the composer writes espressivo, let alone molto espressivo affettuoso. Also portamento is annotated explicitly in some places.
Also here, the piano part is mostly soft, pp up to poco f, and also here, Yulianna Avdeeva leaves the lead role to the violinist. She is a truly excellent accompanist! Though, “duo partner” is far more appropriate here, given the technical challenges in the piano part, which is in parts written on three systems. Yulianna exhibits excellent touch control, dynamic balance, often laying a “sound carpet” for the violin part. The latter is again really challenging, with high-pitch double stop playing, tricky intonation, covering an extreme dynamic span. Julia Fischer didn’t appear to face real technical challenges with this.
And the music? Very descriptive, yet never trivial, but atmospheric, bitter-sweet, enchanting—excellent!
III. Dryades et Pan
Here now, the violin takes the lead, with a quarter-tone tremolo that reminds of the nervous buzzing of a bumblebee (or a wasp?). The wild dancing of the Dryads is primarily in the virtuosic piano part, light, volatile and scherzando, while the violin evolves into double-stop tremolo, arpeggiandi, chains of long trills. The music grows more dramatic, up to a sfff outburst. With the entry of Pan, we hear the violin play extended chains of flageolets. These are meant to depict the playing of a pan flute. To me, they also remind of yodeling, a Ranz des Vaches, or maybe a “transposed alpine horn”? It’s a fascinating effect, in any case!
Here, also the piano occasionally takes a more active role, creating an impressionist atmosphere. Also this movement is full of changes in tempo and meter, accelerandi, ritardandi, fermatas. Expectedly, the coordination, the virtuosic duo playing were virtually flawless. The tempo was fairly fast, but still there were hardly any noticeable intonation issues, nor other mishaps. Congrats!
Shostakovich: Violin Sonata in G major, op.134
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) wrote the Violin Sonata in G major, op.134 in 1968, on the occasion of the 60th birthday of the great Russian violinist David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974). Anecdotal and descriptive details on the sonata are found in a short review of a CD recording with the Russian violinist Lydia Mordkovich (1944 – 2014, David Oistrakh’s last pupil). Let me just give the movements here:
- (Allegro furioso)
- (Variations on a Theme)
In Yulianna Avdeeva’s hands, the initial 12-tone sequence sounded very legato, melodic, entirely retained, inconspicuous. It was as discreet as Shostakovich must have wanted it to be, given that dodecaphony was still suspicious in Soviet times (1968). Later in the movement, I liked how the pianist brought out the nice, melodic bass sonority of the Steinway grand.
The intonation on the violin is extremely challenging, as the violin part is harmonically independent of the piano. Of course nothing is ever perfect-perfect, but Julia Fischer’s intonation was at least as good as imaginable in a concert situation.
The score occasionally intensifies, gets denser, then the music turns capricious, but also humorous, also reminding of neo-classicist compositions, e.g., by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) and other composers. Most of the first movement, though seemed to depict an empty scenery, loneliness, maybe, seeking, holding off for things to come… yet, the atmosphere did not feel cold, was filled with emotion and imagination. Also, the artists were excellent at sticking to the calm pace that they set out initially. There was never a moment of unwanted rushing / acceleration, also across the harmonious, broad dynamic arch around the climax in the center of the movement. The artists (and the audience, of course) seemed to listen into the scenery, into the atmosphere, the music, as it faded away in pppp.
II. (Allegro furioso)
One could anticipate that the music would turn more lively and dramatic, when Julia Fischer increased the tension of her bow! Indeed, here now, the artists appeared to let their horses loose! The middle movement is strongly rhythmic, even motoric, full of drive, momentum—enthralling, and fascinating! Here, one could (finally) feel the power of the violin. And the music is highly virtuosic, powerful, intense, but also full of rapid changes in textures and atmosphere. Segments that sounded almost like folk music alternated with “mechanic” sections that appeared to depict industrial scenery, machinery. An excellent interpretation and performance out of a single mold / mind!
Spontaneous applause almost broke out in the audience at that point! Julia Fischer’s bow lost a hair or two with this vehement, if not furious playing.
III. (Variations on a Theme)
Vehement, resolute at the beginning—and with some intonation issues in the first ff bars. The latter were single instances, luckily, and limited to these bars. After a general rest, In this movement, the violin presents a baroque-sounding theme, with (impressive!) ff pizzicato. This retracts into pp, then continues as a fugato, together with the bass of the piano. The entire movement relates to baroque style / music, also in harmonies. The piano continues with a kind of 2-voice invention (so close to Bach!), and the violin returns with intense, beautiful double-stop singing.
The “invention” turns out to be the theme for a Passacaglia, where the ostinato is first in the left hand on the piano, then the roles of the two instruments are temporarily reversed. The movement gets more and more virtuosic, intricate, challenging and highly virtuosic on the piano. Also the violin part is very demanding, with its double-stop polyphony, rich in trills, again in the intonation (there were no further, noticeable “incidents” here).
Both artists were very impressive in the broad, emphatic and emotional climax. It’s music of such radiant and soothing beauty! It left the audience touched, with its soft ppp, con sordino ending, briefly interrupted by a short eruption, a short reminiscence from the first movement.
Throughout the movement (and the sonata, actually the entire evening), Yulianna Avdeeva proved to be a real master in controlling the dynamics, and in maintaining the acoustic balance.
Clearly, the Shostakovich sonata was very impressive, the highlight of the evening. Expectedly, the applause was enthusiastic. The artists announced an encore:
Encore — Brahms: Violin Sonata “F.A.E.”, Scherzo (Allegro) in C minor, WoO 2
In 1853, the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907) was in Düsseldorf, to premiere a work by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856). On this occasion, Schumann colluded with Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897, then living in Schumann’s household) and his pupil Albert Dietrich (1829 – 1908) for the joint composition of a violin sonata, as present to the violinist. Dietrich wrote the opening movement (Allegro), Schumann wrote movements 2 (Intermezzo. Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell) and 4 (Finale. Markiertes, ziemlich lebhaftes Tempo), and the young Brahms contributed the third movement, a Scherzo (Allegro). The sonata stood under the motto “F.A.E.” (frei, aber einsam, i.e., “free, but lonely”), which appears as three-tone motif in all movements, though fairly well-hidden in the Scherzo.
The entire sonata is rarely performed. A partial explanation for this is in the mixed reception of joint compositions in general. More importantly, though, Joachim kept the sonata locked up, and Brahms’ movement was published (as WoO 2) only in 1906. It even took until 1935 for the entire “F.A.E. Sonata” to appear in print.
It is Brahms’ “F.A.E. Scherzo” which the two artists selected as encore. It was a very good choice: the music is excellent, and a good fit to the preceding program.
With the encore, we also got to hear some of the young, rhapsodic Brahms, with the typical, wide-spanning harmonies on the piano. It’s emphatic music, full of momentum, rich in agogics, and very melodic. In the short Trio-like segment, the music turned very lyrical, even more melodious. What a nice way to end the evening!