St Andrew’s: Valerie Rigg and Tessa Olivier in Vitali Chaconne and Prokofiev sonata

Chaconne in G minor (Tomaso Vitali); Violin sonata No 2, Op 94 (Prokofiev)  

Valerie Rigg (violin) and Tessa Olivier (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wednesday 2 December 2009

This turned out to be a highly impressive and enjoyable recital of two famous works.

Valerie Rigg played with the NZSO  for 19 years, eventually as principal first violin, and she also had a professional career in England, Germany and Canada. She now lives again in Wellington.

She and Tessa Olivier (who emigrated from South Africa in 2002) played these pieces at a September concert at Old St Paul’s, which I heard.  This week’s performance displayed a noticeable advance in their playing of both pieces.

Wikipedia states that the manuscript ascribed the Chaconne to “one ‘Tommaso Vitallino’ who may or may not be Vitali” (his first name is spelt variously with one or two ‘m’s). Further, Wikipedia notes that it “is generally known in a heavily recomposed version by German violinist Ferdinand David” who, as you know, was the concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the dedicatee and first performer of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. In fact, some believe it could have been a pastiche by David, of several motifs by obscure Baroque composers; it appeared in a collection edited by David called Die Hoch Schule des Violinspiels.

In 1911 it was further ‘enhanced’ by French violinist Léopold Charlier who produced what is described as an even more taxing version. It was this that Valerie and Tessa played.

If we accept the kernel of the composition as authentic, the original piece could predate Bach’s solo violin works, since Tomaso was born 20 years before Bach; but it sounds far more ‘modern’ than Bach’s Chaconne, for example, because of the frequent and very radical series of modulations through which the variations move, a rather uncommon baroque procedure. In fact, scholars note that none of Vitali’s authenticated works are remotely like the Chaconne.

It has been called ‘astounding’, ‘a gripping tour de force’; that’s what I thought.

The Chaconne became very popular after its emergence through Ferdinand David, though I cannot ever recall hearing it played live; regardless of its provenance, it deserves to be included in violin recitals, and I welcomed this opportunity to hear it, both at Old St Paul’s and at St Andrew’s.

It was not a performance quite to compare with Milstein or Heifetz perhaps; but merely to play it marks out a violinist as pretty distinguished for it is indeed a highly challenging piece technically. Valerie Rigg had its measure, confidently, right from the stately first announcement of the main theme, in terms of its musical energy and her approach to its varied tempi and pyrotechnic elements that become increasingly hair-raising.

Tessa Olivier’s piano accompaniment, in the nature of a continuo but with a lot of individual interest as piano partner, was accurate and sympathetic, though there were moments when the two seemed rhythmically not quite at one.

The same boldness and confidence characterised their playing of Prokofiev’s second sonata which was his own arrangement of his Flute Sonata (so it’s normally labelled Op 94b).  Prokofiev’s music demands high technical skill, and a rhythmic pulse and momentum that exists in a strange kind of neutral emotional environment. In spite of the variety in the treatment of the themes and their undeniable musical interest, there remains a feeling of non-commitment – not on the part of the players but in the music itself.

The second movement has the feel of a moto perpetuo, in a spirit that is brusque and staccato; the performance was not perfect but splendidly outgoing and committed. Perhaps the real test lay in the playing of the calm Andante movement, beautifully realised through a common vision that maintained a steady focus. In the last movement – Allegro con brio – when writing originally conceived for flute was never far away, its pace was a little less exuberant than I was familiar with; but it gave Prokofiev more space, becoming even more appropriate and successful as a violin piece, combining lyricism with virtuosity. Those qualities, as in the first two movements, were the final demonstration of the admirable interpretative skills of these two musicians.