Violin Dances – Kurt Nikkanen and Rosemary Barnes at Expressions


STRAVINSKY- Suite Italienne  /  TCHAIKOVSKY – 2 Pieces from Swan Lake

KHACHATURIAN – 3 Pieces from Gayaneh  /  GLAZUNOV – 2 Pieces from Raymonda

SARASATE – Carmen Fantasy Op.25

Kurt Nikkanen (violin)

Rosemary Barnes (piano)

Genesis Energy Theatre

Classical Expressions, Upper Hutt

Tuesday 22nd June 2010

“Violin Dances” the concert was called, and “violin dances” was certainly the case throughout the evening –  and in the manner of true dancing, the violin was partnered by piano-playing whose music-making trod just as sprightly and gracefully a measure. Violinist Kurt Nikkanen and pianist Rosemary Barnes enlivened everything they played, bringing together melody, colour and rhythm in a winning amalgam of various dance music drawn from several well-known ballets. Their command of these basic elements was so assured, and their playing so vivid that we in the audience never once wished for the weight and colour of an orchestra, and were left fully satisfied with the music-making’s flavour and energy.

Beginning the recital with Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne was a particularly engaging piece of programming. This was a work that began as Pulcinella, a ballet score for a commedia dell’arte scenario proposed by the impresario Diaghilev, and based on music attributed to the 18th-century composer Giovanni Pergolesi. Stravinsky rearranged (and recomposed) the music for orchestra and solo voices for the original ballet, then dispensed with the voices for an instruments-only suite, before transcribing the music further for violin (or ‘cello) and piano. The original Pulcinella was one of the earliest examples of neo-classicism, and has retained its popularity in all forms to this day. Kurt Nikkanen and Rosemary Barnes danced into the world of the work with a flourish, varying the opening theme’s cheerful insouciance with lovely sotto voce episodes, bringing out the Russian melancholy of the Serenade, and tearing into the Tarantella with skin and hair flying, finishing with a nice touch of throw-away po-faced wit.

There was both elegance and theatricality on show during the Gavotte and Variations sequences and throughout the Menuet’s ever-growing pomposity, followed by a sudden dash into the helter-skelter finale. Nikkanen and Barnes demonstrated plenty of virtuosity and great teamwork, here, exchanging and countering irruptions of energy and exhilaration right to the end. Before beginning the next item, Nikkanen talked with his audience regarding his own early love of music that had plenty of rhythmic vitality – Stravinsky and Bartok, for example. Ironically, the first exerpt from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake that followed demonstrated more the composer’s infinite capacity for melody than for rhythmic excitement. Still, the beautiful playing of both the violinist and pianist in the famous Act Two “Pas de Deux” was utterly captivating, with the piano taking the original ‘cello part, and duetting with the violin, to indescribably expressive effect. The Russian Dance, from Act Three of the ballet, brought out that indigenous folk-quality which Tchaikovsky exploited so fruitfully in his music, the performers responding to the deep melancholy of the opening before springing into the whirl of the concluding dance with great energy and physicality.

Kurt Nikkanen talked about being inspired as a young man by hearing the Russian violinist Leonid Kogan play music by Khachaturian on the radio, in particular a dance  from the ballet Gayaneh. We got a gritty, no-holds-barred rendering of Aysche’s Dance, Nikkanen and Barnes giving the effect of digging into something directly and deeply, playing with an intensity that also informed the Nocturne and the succeeding Sabre Dance, the piano adding to the music’s wild abandon with flailing note-repetitions alternating with the violin’s stinging pizzicati. The interval allowed a breather from such full-on engagements, as did the second-half’s opening bracket of items from Glazunov’s ballet Raymonda, firstly a waltz whose “teashop charm” evoked something of a bygone era, and a Grand Adagio which allowed the performers to dig a little deeper into the emotions, Nikkanen delighting us with some deft melismatic flourishes and even the occasional touch of elfin wickedness, admirably supported at all times by his pianist.

But I can pay no greater compliment to Kurt Nikkanen and Rosemary Barnes regarding the concert by avowing that they managed to make even Pablo de Sarasate’s tiresome Carmen Fantasy work its magic (I must confess to an aversion to virtuoso violin arrangements, pot-pourris, medleys, etc. of this ilk). Even when content became thoroughly subservient to display, as with the second-movement Habanera, the playing had such style and panache that I was thoroughly absorbed by what they were doing and how it was being achieved. Rather more than the obvious pyrotechnics elsewhere, I liked the ghostly insinuations of the lento assai third movement, the music accompanying Carmen’s sexy taunting of Don Jose when being taken by him to prison.

By dint of audience appreciation we got two encores from the pair, firstly Moussorgsky’s Gopak from his unfinished opera Sorotchinsky Fair, a raunchy folk-fiddle-fest with brandy on the breath of the music (to paraphrase another far more famous and far less approbatory critical remark about Russian music), followed by what seemed like its antithesis, Elgar’s charmingly wistful Chanson de Matin, a piece which the violinist told us reminded him of his recent explorations of Wellington, walking around amid the beautiful sunny weather. It made for an elegant finish to a consistently stimulating concert.

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