Full vindication of the glories of the violin and piano repertoire, courtesy the Michael Hill violin competition

Suyeon Kang (violin) and Stephen De Pledge (piano)
Chamber Music New Zealand

Mozart: Violin Sonata in E flat, K 380
Ravel: Violin Sonata No 1 in A minor (posthumous)
Schubert: Sonatina in G Minor, D 408
Kenneth Young: Gone
Stravinsky: Divertimento

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 2 July 7:30 pm

Suyeon Kang won last year’s Michael Hill International Violin Competition and it is thanks to the splendid relationship between the competition and the chamber music organization that the winners can be heard in a series of concerts throughout New Zealand.

There are others in this project: the Queenstown Winter Festival (where the preliminary rounds of the competition are held), Musica Viva Australia (where two of the concerts in the series take place) and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Together with pianist Stephen De Pledge, Suyeon is in the middle of a sixteen-concert tour of New Zealand and Australia.

Presumably of Korean descent, Suyeon is Australian, and her early training there culminated at 16, in winning the Symphony Australia ABC Young Performer’s Award.  Since then she has won major prizes at many international violin competitions, and has played with eminent orchestras, such as Camerata Bern and the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester (which was the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra till 1993), and in chamber ensembles with leading musicians. Clearly the Michael Hill competition attracts experienced violinists on the verge of major careers.

Stephen De Pledge, her partner in this concert series, was an Auckland University graduate who studied at the Guildhall in London and had a flourishing career in Britain and many parts of the world before returning in 2010 to teach at Auckland University.

While on the context of this concert, I might mention that those arriving a bit early were invited to listen to competitors in this year’s Schools Chamber Music Contest, finalists from Wellington’s preliminaries who competed for the semi-finals. I heard the final few minutes of the Apollo Trio playing part of Gareth Farr’s Mondo Rondo and then Trio Funky Dumky playing the Poco Adagio from the eponymous Dvořák piano trio: quite magically expressed, slow, hushed and breathless. See: http://www.chambermusic.co.nz/news-and-reviews/free-pre-concert-events

It might be fair to observe that, even more than solo piano recitals, duos involving violin or cello and piano, seem to have become rare events. And so, violin sonatas that remain in the memory from my teens have had very few occasions to be refreshed in recent years; which was the case with both the Mozart and the Schubert.

I was enraptured right away with the playing of Mozart’s E flat sonata.  The violin spoke with a febrile tenderness, elegant, her bow moving lightly over the strings, producing subtle colours; and De Pledge echoed her mood and expressiveness, producing from the Steinway a sound that approximated somehow the spirit of a fortepiano of Mozart’s era. There were no histrionics or false emotions. The Andante continued in a similar, thoughtful way, and although in the minor key, it wasn’t sadness so much as restlessness that ruled this beautiful movement.

There was pure classical levity and pleasure in the finale – Allegro, the playing confident yet discreet, phrased in the most sophisticated, sensitive way and, if you like, oblivious to the troubles surrounding Mozart’s world.

It is surprising that Ravel, whose output was not all that large, would have forgotten about a piece that he wrote aged 22, while at the Paris Conservatoire. But that’s the story of his sonata in A minor, not unearthed and published till the 1970s. It would take rather specially gifted ears and perhaps wishful thinking to hear much of the typical Ravel in it, but there’s Fauré and perhaps Chausson and perhaps Lekeu. In one movement, it reveals taste and a refined musicality, no tunes that are likely to pester you as you try to get to sleep, but just very agreeable music, and played with exquisite care and persuasiveness. In fact there were arresting passages which offered some contrast though nothing that could be mistaken for high drama.

Schubert’s ‘Sonatina’ in G minor is one of three that Schubert wrote in his teens and had called sonatas but were posthumously published by Diabelli as sonatinas; perhaps on account of the relative brevity. In some composers, brevity would be gratefully accepted, but not in these. Its strength is conspicuous at once as; in a fairly serious tone, the piano takes the tune through fast, pulsing violin figurations; then their roles reverse. It remains lively and interesting through the Andante, with agreeable understatement and restraint. But I wondered a little at the third movement – Menuetto, which purported to be allegro vivace, but where the energy seemed to ebb a little.

Competitions usually have a compulsory set piece, and it was Kenneth Young who was commissioned to write something that would expose weaknesses as well as strengths (am I right about its purpose?). His piece for solo violin was called Gone. The programme notes explained how emotional labels of many kinds could be attached to it, and so it was played. In the event, scope for identifying and exploring conspicuous pains seemed limited, which might point to emotional incapacity on my part; but Suyeon navigated its alleged storms and frustrations with technical ease and even a certain detachment.

Finally, Stravinsky’s Divertimento; four movements drawn from themes in the charming 1928 ballet Le baiser de la fée, which in turn had drawn on songs and other music by Tchaikovsky whom Stravinsky was particularly fond of. That is a sufficient reason to be predisposed to rejoice in its inventiveness, melodic charm and humour (a uniquely Stravinsky but hardly a Tchaikovsky quality) and, in this case, admiration for and delight at the ingenuity and awareness of its characteristics by both players who truly captured all its balletic and theatrical charm. It, and the Suite Italienne (which they play in the other programme which you could catch at Palmerston North on 8 July), are treasurable additions to the violin and piano repertoire.

They acknowledged the strong applause with the Heifetz arrangement of Debussy’s youthful song Beau Soir.

I began by reflecting on the supposed lack of interest in solo chamber music or duos such as for violin, and the not overflowing size of this evening’s audience did seem to justify my speculations. For me this was a quite delightful concert both for the choice of music and for its stylistically and technically superb performances.

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