Duo Recital: Carolin Widmann / Alexander Lonquich
Brahms / Janáček / Strauss
Kirche St.Johann, Schaffhausen, 2017-09-23
After the recital by Sir András Schiff on 2017-09-19, this was the second of the short series of “Schaffhauser Meisterkonzerte 2017“, in the same venue, the church St.Johann in the center of the old town of Schaffhausen. And with Schiff’s recital, this concert shared the common feature of a composition by Leoš Janáček—see below for details.
Both artists of this evening I have heard in concert before:
- The violinist Carolin Widmann (*1976 in Munich, Germany) was soloist in a baroque orchestral concert in Zurich’s St.Peter Church, on 2016-03-15, with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO). As already in that earlier concert, she was playing a precious 1782 violin by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786). She used a modern Tourte type bow.
- Her duo partner, the pianist Alexander Lonquich (*1960 in Trier, Germany) performed in a chamber music concert in Zurich’s Tonhalle on 2015-12-08, together with Vilde Frang (*1986, violin), James Boyd (viola), and Nicolas Altstaedt (*1982, cello). Here, Lonquich was playing a Steinway D-274 concert grand. Besides pursuing his career as a pianist, Lonquich is also conducting.
I was really looking forward to hearing these two artists! At the same time, I had suspicions about this concert. That’s not just because from András Schiff’s recital I knew about the reverberation, the basic acoustic issue with the venue. More importantly, I have enough concert experience to know that violin (or viola, or cello) sonatas are likely to suffer from balance issues, whenever the pianist is using a modern concert grand.
The reality unfortunately confirmed my worries / anticipations, even before the music started. For one, the audience was substantially smaller, very likely making the reverberation stronger. And then, the Steinway grand had its lid fully open, which in my experience can’t work out well, at least for classic and (especially early) romantic compositions. These works were created with early pianos in mind, and these not only had less volume, but also a brighter, more transparent sound. Modern concert grands are designed to fill large concert venues with their sound. At the same time no such instrument development has taken place with string instruments since the early 19th century.
No Options to Fix the Balance?
There is very little that the instrumentalists can do to avoid the disadvantages of a modern concert grand in such situations:
- Pianists often hesitate to play with the lid closed or only half-open, as it likely affects the quality of the sound (making it softer, mellow, possibly diffuse); here, either the pianist of the organizer may have thought that for such a big church / venue, there is no option other than to play with open lid.
- Permanent use of the shift pedal (una corda) is not an option: not only does it alter the sound quality, but it also prevents moving from tre corde to una corda and back, where the composer asks for it.
- Similarly, the violinist cannot just play louder all the time (e.g., by using more pressure on the bow, and/or using more bow), as this alters the character of the music.
On top of all this, Carolin Widmann is not an artist who tries to impress with a huge tone, constant fortissimo, and lots of pressure: her strength is in refined playing, rich in nuances, with differentiated dynamics and articulation.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote his Violin Sonata No.1 in G major, op.78 around 1878/1879 in Pörtschach am Wörthersee. The sonata uses themes / material from two songs among the Acht Lieder und Gesänge für eine Singstimme und Klavier, op.59, namely “Regenlied” and “Nachklang“. From the first of these two Lieder, the sonata also has the by-name “Regensonate” (rain sonata). The composition features three movements:
- Vivace ma non troppo (6/4)
- Adagio — Più andante — Adagio come I (2/4)
- Allegro molto moderato (4/4)
I. Vivace ma non troppo
Carolin Widmann’s Guadagnini violin sounded mellow, almost as if it was equipped with gut strings: a very fine tone, rich in colors, not necessarily smooth, but with little vibrato. Often, the artist used no vibrato at all, particularly in the Brahms sonata. This is so different from how one often hears this composition: traditional performances use lots of vibrato when artists try to make the music sound emotional. Here, it seemed that only the unmodulated, undisturbed sound opened the view onto the feelings, the flow of warm and deep emotions in this music. And it caused the melodies to sing, to flourish—without any need to turn up the volume.
The Guadagnini always responded immediately and without effort, even in the finest, softest ppp, or in the delicate spiccato of the last movement. Predominantly in this sonata, the artist played in the pp .. mf range. But there was the problem that the piano often covered the sound of the violin. The performance confirmed all my worries about the sound balance. Even when the violin sounded through the accompaniment, the sound of the Steinway was fairly massive, dark in the bass. This probably was even reinforced through the acoustics of the venue. With this, the sound of the two instruments never really mixed: a big “machine” next to differentiated sound, the subtleties of the violin. I was sitting in row 4. I wonder how that sounded in the rear parts of the audience!
II. Adagio — Più andante — Adagio
I’m not sure whether the piano introduction could really be called poco f. It seemed that the Steinway could sometimes hardly play a real p, at least relative to a p on the violin. I found Carolin Widmann’s playing very rich in expression. But sometimes, there was a danger of losing the tension, especially across rests, as the piano and the reverberation tended to fill the “tension gaps”.
That said, I must mention that Alexander Lonquich proved an excellent, sensitive duo partner, carefully following the violin part, keeping contact at all times.
III. Allegro molto moderato
The excellent partnership continued in the last movement, where I enjoyed the careful and detailed articulation on the violin, such as the delicate spiccato.
I really don’t understand why the lid of the piano was not at least half-closed. This might also have helped softening the somewhat dry and hard sounding bass register. Alternatively, a smaller instrument (model B or A?) might have helped, too. The only real solution would have been a replica of an instrument from Brahms’ time, with its bright, rich, detailed and transparent sound.
Janáček: Violin Sonata
Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) wrote his Violin Sonata in 1914. Its first performance only happened in 1922. The sonata has four movements:
- Con moto (3/4, 3/4 = 60)
- Ballada: Con moto (3/8, ♪ = 100)
- Allegretto (3/4, ♩= 112) — Meno mosso (3/8, ♪ = 132) — Tempo I (2/4)
- Adagio (12/8, 3/8 = 69) — Poco mosso (2/4, ♩= 72) — Poco più mosso, rubato con crescente emozione (4/4, ♩= 80) — Maestoso — Adagio (♩= 66) — Tempo I (12/8, 3/4 = 69)
As shown, the last movement is characterized by several changes in tempo and time signature. I have reviewed a performance of this sonata in an earlier concert in Zurich.
I. Con moto
Here, the violin part largely carries the melody, with beautiful cantilenas, while the virtuosic piano accompaniment adds rolling tremolo figures, as well as sudden, flash-like interjections, creating a a scenery that often feels menacing, threatening.
The balance issues persisted through that second sonata: the piano again was too dominant (in this movement at least, I felt that the piano really is accompaniment, creating the atmosphere, the foundation for the violin part. Carolin Widmann’s pizzicati sometimes drowned in the piano sound. On top of that, the piano part is very virtuosic, making it even harder to produce a true p. This sometimes appeared to revert the roles of solo and accompaniment.
II. Ballada: Con moto
The balance issue was at its worst when Janáček occasionally asks the violin to play a fine ppp or less (duly, carefully followed by the violinist), making the piano sound too coarse, too clear and direct. Carolin Widmann (quite adequately) played with more vibrato here, but never tried turning up the volume or the density of the tone in order to compete with the piano sound (as this would have altered the character of her part). Overall, this just could not possibly work out in the given setting: here in particular, I feel that the piano part should be atmospheric.
III. Allegretto — Meno mosso — Tempo I
In the Allegretto part, the descending cascades in the violin were mostly lost for the listener, one often could hardly enjoy the violin. Only the middle part did justice to the violin, exposing Carolin Widmann’s excellent playing. Sure, the piano playing was very good, too, though I felt that the instrument sometimes should have sounded more mellow, more blurred / diffuse. Interestingly, amazingly, the pizzicati in the Tempo I part effortlessly seemed to carry through the piano accompaniment. This speaks for the qualities of the Guadagnini violin!
IV. Adagio — Poco mosso — Poco più mosso, rubato con crescente emozione — Maestoso — Adagio — Tempo I
In the final movement, at last, the balance seemed right! The violin part features short, dramatic interjections, largely undisturbed by the accompaniment. And where the violin takes over the wonderful cantilena, Janáček’s piano texture leaves enough space for the violin sound, even where it is con sordino. That movement is really challenging for the violin, especially in the intonation!
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, this same sonata was featured in an earlier concert that I reviewed in yet another posting (the same concert as mentioned above, also featuring the Janáček sonata). So, I’m limiting my description to the list of the movements:
- Allegro ma non troppo (4/4)
- Improvisation: Andante cantabile (4/4)
- Finale: Andante (6/8) — Allegro (3/4)
I. Allegro ma non troppo
Brahms’ sonata was dominated by deep, intense emotions; with Janáček, atmosphere was key. With the Strauss sonata, dramatic expression and a very virtuosic piano part became predominant. Alexander Lonquich offered a masterful, enthralling performance of the immensely difficult score.
Carolin Widmann allowed for more vibrato (adequate for music from the late 19th century, I think), and more romantic expression. However, she could not really play out the power, the momentum, the verve of her part in this setting: her part should really be on a par with the piano in this sonata. But what I found excellent is the rubato playing in this movement.
II. Improvisation: Andante cantabile
Once more, the balance was tilted—in particular where the piano role is accompaniment. Towards the end, the really wonderful music was in danger of losing momentum. I think that the acoustics of the venue contributed to this.
III. Finale: Andante — Allegro
Finally, as with the previous sonata, the last movement was the one I liked most: extremely virtuosic, brilliant, fulminant and enthralling—both the music and the performance. Despite the fact that Strauss’ pp spiccato sequences hardly could make themselves heard: the composer was asking for too much here, I think.
Encore — Poulenc: Violin Sonata, FP 119
The artists offered an encore: from the Violin Sonata, FP 119, by Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963), the second movement, Intermezzo. And here, I happily felt reconciled with the problems of balance and acoustics: all of a sudden, the balance issues appeared to have vanished! The two artists offered an excellent, very atmospheric interpretation, also in the piano part. Poulenc’s diligent disposition (and, of course, the fact that Poulenc composed for the modern piano) at last allowed the violin to take the adequate lead role, and the acoustics even appeared to reinforce the post-romantic atmosphere in this music. An excellent encore choice! And it was a near-perfect closure of a concert with its share of challenges and problems!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.