Amalia Hall and John-Paul Muir impress Ilott Theatre audience

Beethoven: Violin Sonata No 1 in D, Op 12 No 1; Ravel: Tsigane, rapsodie de concert; Sarasate: Two Spanish Dances; Fauré: Violin Sonata No 1 in A, Op 13

Amalia Hall (violin) and John-Paul Muir (piano)

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall, Sunday 16 August 2009

It is a little disturbing that the sort of concerts that the Wellington Chamber Music Society particularly wanted to promote when their fine Sunday afternoon series began in 1983, concerts by young musicians, the likely stars of tomorrow who needed encouragement today, seem to attract smaller audiences.

Audience numbers were down on expectations and down on the crowd who came to hear John Chen and the T’ang Quartet a fortnight before.

No excuse could be found in fine weather, and there are always many other concerts competing for our time and money, though no direct clashes that day. Nor was there any reason to scorn the programme just because it included Sarasate, who is much more than a mere encore composer, and a famous piece of fireworks by Ravel: both are works of genius that proved excellent punctuation points in an attractive programme.

The hundred who weren’t there simply missed a recital of great delight, of music that is central to the violin repertoire and rewarding it its own right.

Beethoven’s first violin sonata is the work of a composer who was fully fledged, naturally drawing on the examples of Haydn and Mozart but already in a voice that was identifiably his own. Though there were occasional inconsequential smudges in the piano part, much more remarkable were the pianist’s vivacity and easy accommodation to the dynamic shading that the violin took such pains to achieve. The two demonstrated right from the start how well they had learned the lessons of chamber music playing, attention to the other player that calls for instantaneous sympathetic reaction.

So the two instruments seemed to be instinctively in balance, in full rapport.

Ravel’s Tsigane cannot be dismissed as no more than a flashy show-piece; it is a remarkable composition that could only have been penned by a great composer. And for sure, it is a pretty formidable challenge to (both) players. The piano part is a splendid homage to Liszt while the violin reflects the qualities of Wieniawski and Sarasate, and this was an exciting, totally commanding performance.

The two Spanish Dances, not identified in the programme, were the familiar ones, probably the Malagueña and Habanera of Op 21, which combine melodic and rhythmic charm and brilliance with musical value, products of a highly trained and talented composer of the era of Dvorak, Grieg and Fauré (to name three disparate contemporaries). Their playing was infectious, and one would rather liked to have heard a couple of the other Spanish dances that he wrote.

Fauré himself ended the concert: the first of his two violin sonatas written, like the Beethoven, before he was 30. The programme note quoted a perceptive and generous critique by Saint-Saëns, ten years his senior, from the first performance. It is hard to go past his description of it as combining “a profound musical knowledge and great melodic wealth, with a kind of naïveté that is irresistible;” describing its “delicacy and charm, novelty of form, resourceful modulations, unusual sonorities and unexpected rhythms. Over all,” it continued, “hovers an allure that envelopes the entire work and makes the most unanticipated touches of boldness seem natural.”

This performance delighted in all these qualities, revealing two players who, perhaps because they are young, could respond with spontaneity and gaiety, without affectation, to the originality and youthful confidence of the young Fauré.

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