Ning Feng, Xiaoming Wang, Nargiza Alimova
Brahms / Strauss / Sarasate

Kulturhaus Helferei, Zurich, 2022-10-10

3.5-star rating

2022-10-31 — Original posting
2022-11-03 — Corrected specifics on the violins used in this concert (thanks to Xiaoming Wang for information!)


Ning Feng und Xiaoming Wang präsentierten einen bereichernden und unterhaltsamen Violinabend— Zusammenfassung

Im Rahmen des einwöchigen “MIngClassics Festival & Academy” (2022-10-09 – 2022-10-14) in Zürich und in rechtsufrigen Zürichseegemeinden präsentierten die beiden Violinisten Ning Feng und Xiaoming Wang (beide 1982 in China geboren, jetzt in Deutschland und in der Schweiz ansässig) ein Rezital in der Kapelle des Kulturhaus Helferei. Sie wurden dabei unterstützt von der Usbekischen Pianistin Nargiza Alimova.

NIng Feng eröffnete das Programm mit der Violinsonate Nr.3 in d-moll, op.108 von Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)—Brahms’ letztem Werk dieser Gattung, musikalisch reif, technisch anspruchsvoll. Als nächstes spielte Xiaoming Wang die Sonate für Violine und Klavier in Es-dur, op.18, TrV 151 von Richard Strauss (1810 – 1849): ein technisch noch anspruchsvolleres Werk, welches vor allem die Pianistin mit höchsten Anforderungen konfrontierte.

Der dritte Teil des offiziellen Programms war dann leichterer Natur: Navarra“, op.33 des spanischen Violinvirtuosen Pablo de Sarasate (1844 – 1908), in der Version für zwei Violinen und Klavier—hinreißende Unterhaltungsmusik im besten Sinne des Wortes. Für die Zugabe, “The Spring of Shenyang”, welche musikalisch an den Geist von Pablo de Sarasates “Navarra” anschließt, waren die beiden Violinisten dann unter sich.


Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeKulturhaus Helferei, Zurich, 2022-10-10 19:00h
Series / TitleMing Classics Festival & Academy — Violin Recital
OrganizerMing Classics, Stäfa / Switzerland
Reviews from related eventsConcerts featuring Xiaoming Wang / Stradivari Quartet

The Venue

The Kulturhaus Helferei actually is not a venue, but an institution that organizes cultural events in and around the former residence of the Swiss reformator Huldrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531), who lived here in the years after 1519. That residence stands next to the former monastery attached to the Grossmünster, one of Zurich’s four major churches. Besides The Kulturhaus uses historic rooms inside Zwingli’s former home. However, the main event venue in the Helferei is a semi-circular (actually half-octagonal) gothic chapel built alongside the southwestern wall of Zwingli’s home.

To me, it’s a vaguely familiar venue. I remember a wonderful performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations BWV 988 in this location, Johann Sonnleitner (*1941) on a fabulous harpsichord (with a sound that I haven’t forgotten since!). This must have been around 1981 – 1983, and I haven’t been in that venue ever since.


Artists and Context

Xiaoming Wang, Violin

It was the Chinese violinist Xiaoming Wang (*1982), born in Beijing, now residing in Switzerland, who invited me to this event. The concert formed a part of the MingClassics Festival and Academy (2022-10-09 — 2022-10-14) that Xiaoming Wang organized in Zurich and in venues at the eastern shores of the Lake of Zurich (Uetikon am See, Küsnacht). The prime focus of the Festival and Academy was on public lessons and recitals by young artists / violin pupils.

Xiaoming Wang’s name wasn’t new to me. He is the first violinist in the Stradivari Quartett (see also Wikipedia), which established itself in Zurich, in 2007. In that function, I have encountered him in a concert, back on 2018-09-09. According to Wikipedia, Xiaoming Wang performs on the 1715 violin „Aurea“ by Antonio Stradivari (c.1644 – 1737). However, most Stradivari violins nowadays are loaner instruments only. That also holds true for the (or most) instruments used in the Stradivari quartet.

As Xiaoming Wang told me, he was now performing on a modern instrument by the German luthier Stephan von Baehr (now in Paris).

Ning Feng, Violin

The violinist Ning Feng (*1982), grew up in Chengdu, China, but now resides in Berlin. Ning Feng performs on the 1710 violin “Vieuxtemps Hauser”, also by Antonio Stradivari (c.1644 – 1737).

As Xiaoming Wang told me, that information on Wikipedia is dated: he told me that here, Ning Feng performed on an instrument by Stefan-Peter Greiner (*1966), Bonn. 

An interesting note: Wikipedia states that Ning Feng was the first Chinese violinist to record all of the Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo, BWV 1001 – 1006 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). I’m close to finishing a detailed comparison of a collection of recordings of these works. However, I wasn’t aware of Ning Feng’s recording when I started that project, hence it is not included there.

Nargiza Alimova, Piano

The Pianist Nargiza Alimova is born in Tashkent/Uzbekistan. She is now teaching at the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe. The piano was a Steinway O-188 mid-size grand piano (or equivalent).


Program

As Xiaoming Wang pointed out in his introduction, both romantic violin sonatas (Brahms, Strauss) were selected because both composers had relationships to Switzerland. Brahms visited Switzerland several times, also composed here. Richard Strauss moved to Zurich in 1945, where he spent most of his last years—he died 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.


Setting, etc.

The audience formed a semi-circle around the performance area. The venue (capacity: 160 seats) was not full, but still held a sizeable audience. My seat was in a middle row, close to the center of the venue, a few meters from the piano.


Concert & Review

Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms

Brahms: Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, op.108

Composer & Work

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed his last violin sonata, the Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, op.108 between 1886 and 1888. The sonata features the following four movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio (D major)
  3. Un poco presto e con sentimento (F♯ minor)
  4. Presto agitato

The Performance

As mentioned above, the artists here were Ning Feng and Nargiza Alimova.

I. Allegro

Starting a recital may always be a bit tricky (and here, the artists needed to begin twice, as a child was rebelling after a few bars). The first section if annotated p, later (bar 21) even pp. I felt that this opening was not soft enough. Not only did the violinist produce too much tone, but he did so with a tendency towards delayed accents (one could see this as “belly notes”). More precisely, Brahms had crescendo / decrescendo forks around the quaver following the (double-punctuated) half-note in bars 3, 4, 7, 8, and 9—and Ning Feng shifted those momentary swellings towards the middle or the beginning of the long note.

Partnership

With the f in bar 24, the piano assumed a more active role, now entering a dialog with the violin’s big gestures. And in the solo segments, the pianist played out the espressivo impulsively, with intense, lively agogics. Ning Feng played with a harmonious (not excessively nervous, very rarely intrusive) vibrato. I particularly liked the full, rounded sonority on the g and d’ strings.

Except for some of the pp segments, which I expected to be more intimate, I liked the expressive dynamics, in particular the excellent acoustic balance, i.e., the violin was never drowning in the sound of the piano (thanks to the small instrument?), and Nargiza Alimova appeared to feel “at home” in Brahms’ (never easy) piano part.
★★★½

II. Adagio

In this movement, the vibrato sounded unnecessarily strong, maybe a little nervous: I felt that a calmer, more subtle vibrato would have better suited the character of the movement. The music is a beautiful, expressive invention: full of warm, intense feelings, but then again retracting into Brahms’ typical, “Northern German” mood, where the emotions appear dimmed, like in twilight. Especially in the latter phases, strong vibrato sometimes felt intrusive.

I particularly like the piano part: very attentive, cooperative and supportive, mellow in sound, never hard. A marvelous movement, for sure!
★★★★

III. Un poco presto e con sentimento

Here now, even more than in the slow movement, Brahms is definitely creating his specific, dusky “Northern German atmosphere”. It’s a challenging movement, especially in the dynamics, as the soft, low segments on the violin are in danger of disappearing in the sound of the piano. That’s particularly evident in the pizzicato in bars 119ff. However, the interpretation was atmospheric, seemed very much “in tune” with Brahms’ music.
★★★★

IV. Presto agitato

Clearly, the piano has the lead role here—and it was Nargiza Alimova who appeared to provide impulses and drive—at least in the expressive, agitated segments. The espressivo section (starting in bar 39) was among the moments which might have profited from the more rounded bass sonority of a larger grand. The pianist’s performance was technically excellent, here, the acoustic balance was again very good—a harmonious interpretation, which very much suited Brahms highly expressive (often almost eruptive) music.
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★

Richard Strauss, by Max Liebermann (Public Domain)
Richard Strauss

Strauss: Sonata for Violin and Piano in E♭ major, op.18, TrV 151

Composer & Work

I have posted descriptive remarks on the Sonata for Violin and Piano in E♭ major, op.18, TrV 151, by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) in an earlier post, where I compared a few recordings. In addition, this same sonata was featured in several concerts that I reviewed in earlier postings. Here, I’m limiting my description to the list of the movements:

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

Brahms’ piano part may be technically demanding—Strauss takes this a level further. His piano part is definitely highly virtuosic!

The Performance

Artists: Xiaoming Wang and Nargiza Alimova.

I. Allegro ma non troppo

A rather lyrical beginning—expressive: maybe slightly too lyrical on the violin in the soft parts? However, the piano part might have contributed to that impression. I felt that the piano often sounded too mellow (more mellow than in the Brahms sonata, for sure), restrained, lacking contours, “attack” and brilliance. Was this the small instrument, the pianist’s touch, or maybe an indication for the bigger technical challenges? Actually, also the violin could have used more volume in some f segments.

Conversely, in the pp, I was missing a sensation of mystery (or intimacy?). Yes, the piano often sounded somewhat restrained—but that does not automatically create a mysterious atmosphere in pp / ppp parts. On the positive side: the acoustic balance in general was excellent—as was Xiaoming Wang’s intonation, up to the highest pitches.
★★★½

II. Improvisation: Andante cantabile

Here, the violin initially takes the lead. The challenges are maybe not so much technical, but musical, e.g., in the need to maintain flow and tension. I did sense some (occasional) loss in tension in the first part. In the appassionato segment, the piano sounded strangely veiled. The subsequent pp / ppp lacked some atmosphere: shouldn’t this be a sort of mysterious idyl? My impression: while the first movement is a huge technical challenge (on the piano, that is), the middle movement is just as much of a musical challenge!
★★★

III. Finale: Andante — Allegro

Nargiza Alimova performed the Andante introduction with mellow touch and plenty of sustain pedal. The subsequent Allegro with its big gestures made me wish for a real concert grand! This also would have allowed Xiaoming Wang to “lean in” more—and both parts could have been wilder, even more exuberant in their expression. I don’t know which part the instrument played in making the piano often sound a tad (too) mellow: to me, the appassionato segment should be overfilled with boiling emotion.

I also sensed that it proved tricky to maintain tension / suspense in the segment that retracts to ppp, prior to the ff / brillante / stringendo explosion, in which the virtuosic, descending piano sounded slightly chaotic, lacking clarity—and brilliance. Signs of exhaustion? Needless to say that Strauss’ piano part indeed is more than exhausting—physically and emotionally! I appear to have focused on the piano part—for the one reason that this must be one of the most strenuous chamber music parts that I’m aware of.

With that, I don’t mean to say that the violin part is easy—it has its challenges, too: rhythmically, intonation-wise, and musically (maintaining tension, etc.). Xiaoming Wang not only was very firm in the intonation, but he also was excellent in mastering the rhythmic intricacies.
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Despite my critical remarks: Strauss’ violin sonata is a fascinating piece of music, a true, enthralling masterwork that does not fail in its effect on the listener, even if the performance isn’t perfect. The challenges probably make it attractive to musicians: I have heard it in several concerts so far—and none of these was 100% successful. Even among recordings, there aren’t many that are fully satisfactory—see the links above.


Pablo de Sarasate (Public Domain)
Pablo de Sarasate

Sarasate: “Navarra” for 2 Violins and Piano, op.33

Composer & Work

Pablo de Sarasate (Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués, 1844 – 1908) was a famous Spanish violin virtuoso, conductor, and composer. In the latter function, he creates some 50 compositions—exclusively for the violin (mostly with piano accompaniment, some with orchestra).

Navarra” for 2 violins and piano, op.33 is the only composition for two violins, originally with orchestral accompaniment (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, and strings). The version for two violins and piano, presumably by the composer himself, appeared in 1889. The orchestral version was only published some 7 months after the version for 2 violins and piano.

Navarra” is in A major and consists of a short introduction (Lento in modo di Recitativo), rhythmically free (senza misura), followed by the main part (AllegroPresto) in 3/8 time.

The Performance

The preceding two sonatas may have been masterpieces and compositorial highlights in the violin literature, Strauss’ sonata also presenting technical extremes (for the piano). Pablo de Sarasate’s “Navarra” brought a radical change: it stands for catchy, folksy harmonies and popular melodies. Already the introductory recitative-cadenza showed the two violins in “total harmony”, in thirds parallels, in complete rhythmic and tonal harmony—two violinists, “one voice”!

The main part (Allegro) instantly switched from the lyrical introduction to elated, enthralling rhythms, a kaleidoscope of folksy dances and popular melodies. One such example is now known as “My Hat, It Has Three Corners”—originally “mamma, mamma cara“, which again goes back to a Neapolitan canzonetta.

The piano accompaniment is often simple, even monotonous—all the more, the audience enjoyed the enthralling, rhythmic swaying in the violins, the jubilation, the fun, the pure joy: excellent, the two violins unanimous, in complete harmony, up to highest flageolet lines, down to effectful tremolos and parades: show, sure, and virtuosity of a different kind. It maybe musically simple, occasionally even trivial: nevertheless, it was total fun and pleasure—loved it!

Rating: ★★★★

Encore — “The Spring of Shenyang”

Xiaoming Wang announced the encore as a Chinese piece, “The Spring of Shenyang”, without mentioning a composer. Shenyang is a major city some 600 km NE of Beijing, the composition must be 20th (or 21st) century music, in western classic / popular style.

Ning Feng, Xiaoming Wang @ Kulturhaus Helferei, Zürich, 2022-10-10 (© MingClassics)
Ning Feng, Xiaoming Wang @ Kulturhaus Helferei, Zürich, 2022-10-10 (© MingClassics)

It is a composition for two violins without accompaniment (or rather, the two instruments alternate in their roles of lead and accompaniment). For the most part, the encore appeared to combine enthralling southern and eastern European rhythms in a Western, popular harmonic framework. Music in the spirit of Pablo de Sarasate’s “Navarra“, just as enthralling, but more folksy. The “Chinese” / far-eastern component mostly just shone through “between the lines”. Fun and excellent entertainment nevertheless!


Conclusions

Not everything can and must always be perfect—in the end, it’s the musical content which counts. And in that sense, it definitely was a most enjoyable evening!


Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to Xiaoming Wang, for the press tickets to this concert.



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