Valerie Rigg (violin) and Tessa Olivier (piano): Berceuse, Op 16 (Fauré), Violin Sonata in G minor (Debussy), Violin Sonata in D, Op 94 bis (Prokofiev)
St Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt
Wednesday 22 September, 12.15pm
There are days when Wellington is one of the best places in the world. When the sun’s shining after a southerly and you can see the trees on the Orongorongos and a midday concert at Lower Hutt calls for a drive (though better, a train ride) along the Wellington fault line. You see across the brilliant harbour to the snow-brushed Orongorongos and the Tararuas further north more thickly covered.
St Mark’s church on Woburn Road near the east end of the Ewen Bridge is easy to reach (the train from Wellington and the bus from Petone which stops nearby). Volunteers offer coffee for the audience before the concert; the front rows have padded seats and the church has a remarkably high vault which creates a generous acoustic.
Last year I heard Valerie Rigg, a former principal violinist with the NZSO, with pianist Tessa Olivier, playing Vitali’s (or who-ever’s) Chaconne and Prokofiev’s second violin sonata (I had not remembered that it was there that I had heard her play it). She was playing the same Prokofiev again, so I looked at what I’d written last year, and was delighted to find that I’d responded so well to it.
In this concert, a day after Olya Cutis and David Vine played it at Old Saint Paul’s, the Prokofiev was coupled with Debussy’s Violin Sonata; as a prelude, they played the charming Berceuse by Fauré. The latter was the perfect introduction, for the duo played it with great warmth and an obviously sympathetic musical rapport. I enjoyed its easy swaying rhythm.
Debussy’s sonata is as hard to play as it sounds, so that a performance that sounded as if the two musicians had lived with it for hundreds of hours was a real delight. Though I should have been prepared, from last year, to be totally beguiled by their playing, one does not always expect a player who’s spent most of her life in the ranks of an orchestra, to emerge as a comfortable and polished solo performer. Her intonation was as good as it gets, her command of Debussy’s quick-moving, glancing ideas was captivating.
Debussy’s piano demands more attention than the piano sometimes gets in a duo. Tessa Olivier was a most congenial companion, often catching the attention, but never obscuring the violin’s more outgoing lyrical contribution.
The church’s recently refurbished Bösendorfer is a lovely, and appropriate instrument for a recital like this: a mellow and somehow ready-made fit with the violin. It either refutes the common view (did it originate with Brahms?) that it is extremely difficult to achieve a blend of the two, or is a credit to both players and the way they use their instruments.
One of the most touching phases was in the last movement where fluttering trills and uncommon plunges to the open G string lead toward the beautifully crafted conclusion.
Prokofiev was the unusual hybrid who passed through his bad-boy phase, where it was more important to ‘épater le bourgeois’ than to make beautiful sounds; eventually, of course, like any really gifted composer, he found his way back to melody after his return to the Soviet Union in 1933 where, give or take the odd Stalinesque purge, there was an environment where his belief in the fundamental importance of melody was not a matter of scorn. There’s character, lyricism, attractive discord, rhythmic teasings, and tunes; yet this sonata, originally for flute, could have been written no earlier than about the 1930s (actually in the 1940s). Every movement has its individuality which the two players fully realized, relishing the gruff bowings in the middle of the Moderato first movement, the sort-of moto perpetuo that drives the Scherzo, with a slightly too hasty up-and-down motif.
What a sweet languid movement they made of the Andante! as the piano planted its even crotchets below the violin’s twisting and weaving. Only in the Finale, were there moments where the spirited, perhaps too confident violin might have been at the expense of perfect intonation and clean articulation. But always the combination of an agile left hand and a bowing arm that created both beautiful legato and the most full-blooded attack was exactly the recipe for this music.
The two awoke in me the odd sense that the music was not so much being performed, as simply being allowed, through the medium of the two musicians, to fill the space and follow an inevitable path into our souls.
Sadly, Tessa Olivier is about to return to her homeland, South Africa. May I suggest that wherever and whenever Valerie Rigg next appears, with whoever follows Ms Olivier, you make sure you’re there.