Martin Riseley (violin) and Jian Liu (piano) – elegance plus outrageous virtuosity

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Martin Riseley (violin) and Jian Liu (piano)

FRANCK – Violin Sonata in A Major / DEBUSSY – The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

SARASATE – Introduction and Tarantella Op.43 / PAGANINI – Moto Perpetuo

WIENIAWSKI – Scherzo-Tarantelle Op.16

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus

Victoria University

Friday 5th April

The present recital, featuring violinist Martin Riseley and pianist Jian Liu, was one of a series of concerts organized this year by the New Zealand School of Music.

Martin Riseley has on at least one previous occasion given me short-term lockjaw in the open position, when he played the 24 Caprices of Niccolo Paganini at a concert I attended in Wellington a little over three years ago. Playing those works in a single performance span and making a success of the undertaking demonstrated at the time that the violinist was a virtuoso-musician of considerable stature.

This time round, Riseley again wowed us with his brilliance and quicksilver reflexes, though the “relentless virtuosity” of Paganini and a later generation of virtuoso performer-composers represented by Sarasate and Wieniawski was confined to the recital’s second half. Not that the opening part of the concert gave the musicians any great relaxation, though the demands were of a slightly “removed” order of musicianship – this was the well-known Sonata in A major by Cesar Franck, inhabiting what Robert Schumann might have called “different realms” of expression.

I found Martin Riseley’s programme notes fascinating, as much for conveying his attitudes towards and history of playing the Franck work, as for giving me certain insights into some of the different technical aspects of playing both sections of the recital. I was interested that he mentioned as his “ideal” the recording of the Franck Sonata made by the Russian pair David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter, as that performance has always been a great favorite of mine as well.

So it was with much anticipation that I settled down to await the beginning of the Franck, aware as I was of the playing and interpretative skills of not only Riseley, but pianist Jian Liu, whom I had heard and enjoyed a number of times in recital.

I thought the work’s opening beautifully voiced, having a growing focus from the first notes which flowered nicely at the first real climax. The passagework of both musicians had a lovely velvet touch in places, but had sinew and muscle in others when strength was required – the players’ detailing suggested depths as well as half-lights. Each musician nicely “wreathed” the other’s playing – still, I felt the music and its intensities slightly held back throughout, each player doubtless aware of the terrain still to be traversed.

Jian Liu’s clarity of fingerwork at the scherzo’s beginning actually reminded me more of Saint-Saens than Franck – he brought out the music’s athleticism, rather than what I think of as its erotically suggestive Wagnerian undercurrents. But both pianist and violinist beautifully integrated the “quiet centre” of the piece into the music’s pulsing, maintaining a “charged” quality throughout, and giving the growing dramatic rhetoric of the recitatives full force. The violinist splendidly brought out the soaring theme at the height of the agitations, contrasting it beautifully with its more reflective self in the quieter moments. The coda was properly hushed and expectant at the start, gathering energy and thrust and featuring the instruments really “digging into” the music, though again, the articulation was so very precise, the feeling was for me more abstracted than truly suggestive and passionate.

At the slow movement’s beginning the gestures had a truly Shakespearean eloquence, grand and declamatory, but with real “quality” in the silences. Both musicians were able to fine down their tones from those very public utterances to more private musings. Franck introduces his themes so touchingly in this movement, and Liu’s liquid keyboard tones and Riseley’s beautifully-floated lines meant that the first “suggestive” theme and later the more declamatory “unveiling” theme both had a kind of “borne along” quality, very intense, but beautifully integrated into the flow.

After this I was a little disconcerted by the finale as played here, the instruments (especially the piano), bent upon contrast instead of pursuing a continuance of “coming-out” from the previous movement’s thrall – in fact the first paragraph was simply too brightly and bouncily played for me after what had gone before. However, the contrasting episodes were voiced beautifully and sensitively by both musicians, even if I wanted the piano tones to have more “tumbling body-warmth” in places. When the slow movement’s theme was reintroduced, I thought the piano figurations which built up towards the violin’s impassioned entries too skitterish, and needing more weight of tone to match those incredible “drenched” violin tones.

Still, a committed performance can win over the most curmudgeonly listener, and thus it proved here – I found myself applauding as wholeheartedly as anybody in the Adam Concert Room when the music was all over. Perhaps in response to our enthusiastic reception the players decided to spontaneously add another item to the program, that of an arrangement for violin and piano of Debussy’s Prelude for solo piano, La fille aux cheveux de lin. This was simply gorgeous, the musicians giving the music absolute security of intonation throughout, and allowing the notes themselves to express their “quality” within the overall shape of things – the piece’s interpretation thus came from the actual “sounds” of the notes, added to which were episodes of haunting harmonics in the middle section, and dead-in-tune double-stopping towards the end.

From here on in the program there were fireworks aplenty, with the very occasional moment of repose or circumspection grudgingly allowed the musicians (well, the violinist, really!), such as the very opening to Pablo de Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella. Even so, there were difficulties aplenty here, such as frequent high-wire harmonics capping a whole series of finely-wrought archways of melody. But the Tarantella, when it began, astonished us all, bristling with virtuoso displays, the wonderful alternating (and then together!) left-hand/right-hand pizzicati a visual as well as an aural delight, as were the three-octave leaps along the instrument’s top string. The dance’s reprise was a breathtaking gallop, notes flying in all directions as would pebbles scatter from beneath a horse’s hooves.

More wizardry came with the Paganini Moto Perpetuo. The music resembled a rushing fusillade of notes in places, though Riseley’s playing retained sufficient poise to be able to bring out the music’s dynamic variation, and get an attractive “ebb and flow” aspect. Less gratefully written was the work by Henryk Wieniawski, in which the violinist has to constantly “reach” for the top note in the melodic line, making for more effortful results than in the other two virtuoso pieces. Yet the violinist was still able to bring out the gorgeousness of the writing with the main tune’s reprise. Throughout these pieces Jian Liu was a reliable and rock-steady support-partner, his presence the launching-pad from which Martin Riseley’s violin was able to sing, soar and scintillate to great and thrilling effect throughout the concert.










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