Diabolically fine fiddling from Martin Riseley

St.Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts 2011

Martin Riseley (violin)

JS BACH – Sonata in C BWV 1005

PAGANINI – Introduction and Variations on Nel cor più non mi sento (from Paisello’s La molinara)

YSAŸE – L’Aurore

BARTOK – Sonata for Solo Violin (1944)

St.Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 13th March 2011

The trouble with the kind of jaw-dropping musical virtuosity demonstrated by the likes of Martin Riseley is that it can for some people obscure the actual substance of what’s being performed – since the time of the master-fiddler, Paganini himself, this “circus entertainment” aspect demonstrated by skilled executants has frequently bedeviled their musical efforts. Paganini recounted how, on one occasion, he was approached by a gentleman who claimed to have discovered his “secret”……

One individual…affirmed that he saw nothing surprising in my performance, for he had

distinctly seen, while I was playing my variations, the devil at my elbow

directing my arm and guiding my bow.  My resemblance to him was a proof of my

origin.  He was clothed in red–had horns on his head–and carried his tail

between his legs.  After so minute a description, you will understand, sir,

it was impossible to doubt the fact–hence, many concluded they had

discovered the secret of what they termed wonderful feats.”

It may come as a disappointment to some readers of this review that I’m not going to swear to having seen a similar apparition at Martin Riseley’s shoulder during his St.Andrew’s on The Terrace recital – but there was nevertheless plenty of sulphurous wizardry about his playing, albeit placed entirely at the service of the music throughout. When one encounters, as here, a fusion of virtuoso skill and musical sensibility, the results can be overwhelming. The programming judiciously underlined this marriage of technique with substance – and I recall being delighted by a previous solo violin recital of Riseley’s in which he presented the complete Paganini Caprices as a set of musical treasures, not mere virtuoso show-off pieces.

Riseley began his recital with an unprogrammed item, an Elegy by Stravinsky, to pay tribute to the people of Christchurch in the wake of the disastrous earthquake of February 22nd of this year. The violinist, himself a native of Christchurch, had already announced that he was donating his fee for the concert to the city’s relief fund. His playing of the music appropriately realized the elegiac nature of the piece, bringing to the textures a sombre, viola-like quality which made one imagine in places that the larger instrument was being used. Riseley requested that there be no applause at the end.

Strong, tensile, detailed and expressive – these words came to my mind as I listened to Riseley begin the Adagio which begins the Bach C Major Sonata BWV 1005. By the end he had managed to give us something both monumental and beautifully crafted at one and the same time. The Fugue astonished, as should be its wont, for the same reason, the player’s mastery evident in his ability to relate such a myriad of detail to a coherent structural argument – a feast for the intellect as well as for the ears. After such far-flung magnificence the Largo was bound to seem almost cowed at first, but the violinist’s lightness of touch found the essential contrast of mood, preparing us for the fleet-fingered concluding Allegro. Riseley told us at the end that he last performed the work in Christchurch’s ill-fated Cathedral, thus investing what we’d just heard with a thoughtful retrospective.

True to expectation, the introduction to Paganini’s Variations on a theme of Paisiello’s (the aria “Nel core più non mi sento”) generated flinted sparks and similar coruscations, after which the actual theme of Paisiello’s was subjected to all kinds of virtuoso “tricks”, including left-hand pizzicati. Paganini never actually published this work, for fear of his techniques being stolen by others – so posterity has had to rely on transcriptions by other people – in this case one Karl Gurh – to convey a sense of what the little wizard did with the hapless Paisiello’s theme. Throughout, Riseley’s playing properly titillated our capacities for sheer pyrotechnic enjoyment, while drawing attention occasionally to the charm and poignancy of this or that poetic turn of phrase. The virtuoso fireworks were properly put in context at the very end of the work by a deliciously throwaway ending, whose creative insouciance and deftness of touch were very much appreciated.

I liked, too, Ysaye’s L’Aurore, an evocation of dawn which gently eased us back into the fray after the interval. The work’s long-breathed lines paralleled plenty of accompanying incident, such as pizzicati and double-stopped figurations. It was as if through great lyrical archways all kinds of ambient detail scampered, the changing moods of the piece including a dance-sequence at the end, the human element in concourse with nature.

Before beginning the Bartok sonata, Riseley talked about the music’s performance difficulties, with reference to the work’s early interpreters, who were faced with what seemed like near-impossible challenges, and contrasted those endeavors with modern-day virtuosi whose technical prowess can seem just as misapplied in a completely different way when the music is made to sound almost “easy”. If the music didn’t sound “easy” under Riseley’s fingers, it was through no lack of skill on the violinist’s part. In the first movement one got the feeling of the lines being pushed to the utmost limits of physical expression, while the Fugue managed to combine ideas whose beauty, angularity and sharply-etched focus create what Riseley called in his programme-note a “tour de force” of concentrated composition. Though the Adagio chartered vastly different contourings, its concentrated mood readily found affinities with what had gone before – Riseley’s playing generated an amazing sense of extra-terrestrial traversal, those long lines and melismatic scale-fingerings together creating an unworldly effect, rich and strange.

As for the finale, Riseley characterized the music’s contrasting modes splendidly, the haunted “flight” music of the opening giving way to folk-idioms suggesting both dance and song, the melodic fragments stretched and intensified, and ever more closely juxtaposed with the urgent scherzando mood of the opening, a fragment of which seemed to become the final upward flourish of the work.

Its triumphant realization by the violinist brought to an end a truly splendid concert, one which amply served to demonstrate the wonder and privilege of having an instrumentalist of Martin Riseley’s talents close at hand to perform such music for our pleasure.

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