A lunchtime concert for the exploratory and spirited on violin and cello

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Rupa Maitra (violin) and Margaret Guldborg (cello)

Pieces by Halvorsen, Bréval and Ravel

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 24 October, 12:15 pm

Duos between the piano and many other instruments are numerous, but between pairs of other instruments, without a keyboard, rare; though string quartets and less often string trios and quintets seem to be popular and work well.

This was an opportunity to put it to the test.

Halvorsen’s Passacaglia based on a theme from Handel’s harpsichord suite in G minor is not completely obscure. The tune lends itself to variations and Halvorsen made it into something of a virtuoso showpiece, though it’s rather more than that; and though this performance didn’t exploit its bravura character, it was played with imagination. While Handel’s fingerprints were evident in the character of the melody, the late 19th century, a Paganini/Sarasate spirit guides these variations. In some ways it was not a propitious opening piece as it drew attention to a contrast in tone, even in control of articulation, between the two instruments; the cello tone was rather more polished and mellow than the violin’s where the high register tended to be thin.

The Duo by Jean-Baptiste Bréval, cellist, and a close contemporary of Mozart, was found in a collection of Airs varies for violin and cello and produced a curious sound that probably reflected the very different musical climates between Italy/German lands and France. The variation character was not as conspicuous, wide-ranging as might be found in German music of the period; the composer called for a lot of harmonics as well as very high normal fingering on the cello, and Guldborg handled them comfortably. As might be expected from a cellist-composer, that instrument tended to be more conspicuous.

The major work in the recital was Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello of 1922. I think most listeners, blindfold, would find it hard to identify the composer, other than through a process of elimination, and even then ‘Ravel’ might be deleted. Nor is identification easier because of its connection with Debussy’s death four years before.

Each of the four movements is emotionally and stylistically distinct.  The first movement, Allegro, calls for curious kinds of duetting, counterpointing, handling the two instruments, sometimes in happy accord, sometimes as if in different universes; lots of demanding playing high on the fingerboards of both instruments.

The second movement, Très vif, rhythmically a different creature from the Allegro, insistent, short motifs, but then a long, almost elegiac, passage from the violin, its pedigree still very obscure. In many ways it struck me as singularly avant-garde, not inconceivable in the immediate post-war years, post dodecaphonic, Schoenbergian era, yet essentially tonal.

The only quasi peaceful episode is the ‘Lent’ third movement. It’s thoughtful but even here there is nothing of a more familiar character that might shackle it to Ravel. Margaret Guldborg had spoken briefly about it, hinting at its possible kinship with Shostakovich (and the 2nd movement with Stravinsky), but neither helped. There were tortured, abrasive elements; and there were moments that I thought listeners with more open-minded ears than mine might have rated as melodic; and there were passages of dialogue between the two instruments that were arresting, though not in a language in which I am fluent.

The cello opened the last movement, Vif, actually, ‘Vif avec entrain’, (lively with enthusiasm), gruffly, in the cello’s low register, as was Maitra’s violin, which also revealed an adventurous spirit. I also enjoyed what I felt as a characteristically Ravellian, comedic element, notably in the rhythmic games played: in the way the two challenged each other. It is some years since I heard it played live, and again I was persuaded by its considerable musical value, though its beauties are probably not to be enjoyed without effort.

In this, the contrast in timbres and colour between the two instruments, to a certain disadvantage in the other two pieces, became a positive element in a piece that demanded attention to every detail. So it proved a lunchtime concert that challenged a little, as well as opening one’s mind to unfamiliar but worthwhile repertoire.


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