Vaughan Williams: Pastorale in E minor; Janáček: Violin Sonata in A flat minor; Prokofiev: Violin Sonata in D, Op 94 bis
Olya Curtis (violin) and David Vine (piano)
Old Saint Paul’s
Tuesday 21 September 12.15pm
Last year I heard these two musicians play the Elgar and Franck sonatas in this place. This year they stepped firmly into the 20th century, even though, ironically, Janáček was born before Elgar.
The Vaughan Williams Pastorale was not the typical English pastoral music that came to be rather scorned a generation or so ago; perhaps it was the fact that the violinist was Russian and it was warm and gentle, somewhat modal in its flavour. But just as much, the tone was set by pianist David Vine who, though English-born, plays idiomatically in whatever style is in front of him.
The Janáček sonata was written during the First World War years and premiered in 1922. Though it’s ostensibly Slavic music, and Janáček was rather passionately pro-Russian, he found such a unique manner that a musician’s nationality can have no bearing. In any case, Curtis seemed less at home with the irregular tempi and diverse character of its first movement than did Vine; it went fairly slowly, not as Con moto as I expected from that marking. The players produced a more lyrical second movement, marked Ballada, with long melodies, though elsewhere the characteristic isolated and sharply contrasted motifs did not integrate so persuasively. They brought off the Allegretto well, with energy and conviction and, in spite of minor intonation flaws, captured a real Janáček feeling in the Finale, a sound that is unique in all music.
(Janáček is reported saying that the tremolo piano chords in the finale represented the Russian army entering Moravia, liberating it from Austria-Hungary. The Russian army may have penetrated as far as Moravia in the early stage of World War I, but was quickly driven back by the German army. It was the Treaty of Versailles that later gave the Czech and Slovak lands independence from Austria-Hungary.)
Prokofiev’s second sonata was in fact completed before his first (Op 80), which was not completed till 1946. David Oistrakh to whom Prokofiev had promised it before the war, had become impatient as the composer was heavily committed to other things such as the ballet Cinderella, and so he made a careful transcription of his flute sonata of 1942 which Oistrakh premiered in 1944.
The easy lyricism of the first movement of this sonata seemed to suit Olya Curtis rather more than the Janáček, and even in the scampering passages of the second movement, in spite of a few smudges, both players caught its spirit well. But she might have taken better advantage of opportunities to dig into its emphatic notes more strongly. In Prokofiev’s Andante, I could hear most clearly the ghost of the flute, in its most warm and open mood, as she moved her bow as far as possible from the bridge. Finally, in the Allegro con brio, there were a few rough edges and I was haunted by the sounds of certain great violinists whose miraculous renderings somewhat intruded. Nevertheless, the duo succeeded in bringing one of the liveliest and most approachable violin sonatas of the mid-century vividly to life.