Beethoven and bravura violin music from Valerie Rigg and Mary Barber at Old St Paul’s

Lunchtime concert at Old Saint Paul’s

Valerie Rigg – violin and Mary Barber – piano

Kreisler: Praeludium and Allegro in the style of Pugnani
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No 10 in G, Op 96
Wieniawski: Polonaise brilliante, Op 4

Old Saint Paul’s

Tuesday 15 September, 12:15 pm

I had no knowledge of the programme till I arrived on this sunny, breezy morning, at Old Saint Paul’s, now famous as one of the most beautiful buildings in New Zealand. So that in spite of sightline problems here and there, and acoustic oddities with some sounds, the pleasures to be found just to be there are great. The stained glass creations, among almost an entire suite of stained glass, of Saints Catherine and Cecilia (her, the patron saint of music) side by side on the north wall on my left, can afford comfort for any catastrophe (and I speak not of religious belief or sensibilities).

But here we had a brave violinist taking on a couple of terrifying, virtuoso violin pieces. The performance began with that feeling of tension and suspense that accompanies watching a high-wire act, as Valerie Rigg started the Kreisler. But the thrill of an exciting performance vanished suddenly as conspicuous signs of serious insecurity in intonation and articulation in the playing were obvious, which really continued throughout. The cause I couldn’t guess, but I thought it unlikely that her musical skills had just deserted her.

At the end she went off and Mary Barber spoke about the character of the Beethoven sonata that was to follow and, as Valerie returned, remarked casually that she’d had to replace a string. Ah! What a pity she hadn’t stopped as soon as the trouble emerged and changed the string then!

So the Beethoven went well, with new confidence, even sound, good intonation. There was a nice feeling of rapport between the two players, whose common approach was restrained and modest. It’s always good to observe the pianist in a sonata duet, and both to see and hear the way the pianist, without becoming subservient, watches expressive gestures, careful hesitations by the violinist and matches them sensitively, which enriched the sanguinity and sanity of the long, warmly melodious first movement.

As Mary Barber had observed, the slow movement suggests an exploratory frame of mind with descending arpeggios or scale passages that seemed to be drawing some kind of message from the music but not perhaps arriving.  That’s probably a good way to describe a movement that is not superficially engaging, as the melodies are not among Beethoven’s most memorable. Yet the performance held the attention and the composer’s gifts in creating bewitching music from unspectacular material proved themselves, as well as the perceptiveness of the players. And it’s not as if  it’s a short movement. There’s a tantalising suspense on the enchanting last page that leads to a dark key change, from E flat to the Scherzo and Trio in G minor, which was well expressed.

This is a vigorous but not specially witty movement, though obviously more vigorously characterful than the Adagio. It’s also quite short. The vivid Scherzo is followed by a more lyrical, swaying melody in the Trio section which almost suggests a mazurka.

I had forgotten how attractive the last movement of this last of Beethoven’s violin sonatas was. And the players delighted me, really enhancing the feelings I had at having my memories so splendidly refreshed. On top of the pleasure expressed in the body of the movement, the tempo change in the Coda brought an excitement to the conclusion that was very satisfyingly prolonged.

Then came the Wieniawski which, now, raised no misgivings in me as I knew that Valerie Rigg’s instrument, as well as she herself, were fully able to manage the pyrotechnics. In the event, they played his Polonaise Brilliante at a slightly calmer pace, none of the hectic speed and flamboyance that a dedicated violin virtuoso might adopt. In fact, it was at the more stately, processional sort of speed which is the way the dance must be performed (watchers of the last act of Eugene Onegin will know about that). So the dangers were sensibly minimized really to the music’s benefit. Sure there was the occasional minor missed mark in the wide-spaced arpeggios, and in the inescapable bravura flourishes, and the last section didn’t go perfectly, but in general, intonation, double-stopping, and in fact, the essential spirit of the music were convincingly present.


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