Monique Lapins and Jian Liu give consummate performances of Bartok and Debussy at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
Monique Lapins, violin, and Jian Liu, piano

CLAUDE DEBUSSY – Violin Sonata in G minor L148
BÉLA BARTÓK – 6 Romanian Folk Dances
BÉLA BARTÓK – Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, Sz 75

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

How privileged we are in Wellington to be able to go to a lunch time concert on a beautiful Wednesday and hear such consummate artists as Monique Lapins and Jian Liu of the NZ School of Music. They presented a challenging programme of Debussy and Bartók. The two violin sonatas were written within a few years of each other, Debussy’s in 1917 in the middle of the war, Bartók’s in the aftermath of the war and in the shadow of the Hungarian Commune. Both were groundbreaking works.

Debussy was very ill, dying of cancer when he wrote his Violin Sonata. It was his last composition, planned as one of six instrumental sonatas, of which he completed only three, his Cello Sonata, his Sonata for Flute Viola and Harp and this Sonata for Violin. It is in classic sonata form in three movements, but there the comparison with the great sonatas of Beethoven or Brahms ends. It is a short work, a third of the length of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, but though it is short, it is concise with a wealth of material. The first movement opens with chords on the piano which are then deconstructed, fragmented. The beautiful haunting melody, played on the violin has an oriental flavour with a tinge of sadness The second movement starts with a violin solo which breaks into a jocular passage that alternates with dark melancholy and then sarcasm as if saying ‘don’t take me too seriously’. The opening of the final movement starts with a nostalgic melody, then becomes triumphal with high spirits and playful accompaniment. The work lasts less than a quarter hour, yet it is full of contrasts, wit, charm, and transparent filigree passages, but also a sense of loss. It is a fragile piece that requires sensitive reading and Monique Lapins and Jian Liu did justice to this most beautifully.

Bartók’s Six Romanian Dances were an appropriate contrast to the Debussy Sonata. These are boisterous, folksy, a product of Bartók’s travels through the Balkans, collecting folk music with his fellow composer, Zoltán Kodály They are immediately approachable. They also present technical challenges, difficult double stops, harmonics, unrelenting strong rhythms. They also served as a bridge to Bartók’s musical world, his search for a musical language that broke away from the musical language that he was reared on, the language of Brahms and other great German composers. I couldn’t help thinking Monique Lapins and Jian Liu’s playing here perhaps a little TOO “masterly”, too controlled, in places needing more sense of the dances’ gay abandonment.

Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 1, by contrast, is a difficult work, both technically and musically. Unlike the Debussy Sonata, which is brief, concise and at times whimsical, the Bartók Sonata is a long, passionate, disturbing piece. The first movement opens with rich chords on the piano, then the violin enters with a plaintive if discordant melody. The piano and violin complement each other with contrasting voices, but they don’t echo each other or share melodic or rhythmic themes. The piano captures the sound of the cimbalom, the violin the crying human voice. The strained harmonies highlight the tension between the two instruments. The second movement opens with a beautiful if discordant gentle violin solo that Monique Lapins played as beautifully as you are ever likely to hear, before the piano took over with sombre pensive chords. Jian Liu produced a rich palette of sounds on the piano, percussive when it was required, gentle, lyrical with a warm tone when that was appropriate. The mood of the movement was one of longing, heart rending sadness, played by the violin and supported by harp-like chords on the piano. The final movement opened with harsh percussive chords on the piano and this percussive beat continued to appear right through the piece, while the violin played with manic energy. Hungarian rhythms intruded in the midst of the seeming mayhem. Then the piece broke down into grotesque dance rhythms interrupted by brief lyrical episodes on the violin. The work ended with passionate energy. This energy and passion carried the audience with it, reflected by the wild applause that followed, an applause seldom heard at the end of a lunch hour recital.

This sonata is a challenge for violinist and pianist alike. It is a difficult monumental work which Monique Lapins and Jian Liu played with rare zest.

It was a memorable recital. The Bartók Sonata is rarely heard, perhaps because of its exceptional difficulties. Those who were at the concert were fortunate have had the opportunity to hear it in such an exceptionally fine performance.