It's rare to be an accomplished violinist. It's rarer to be both an accomplished violinist and pianist. We know that most academically trained musicians nowadays are required to learn more than one instrument. But to be good in both is a completely different matter. Yet that's what we found last night at the City Hall. We had the inimitable double-talented Julia Fischer, master musician from Munchen, Germany, who not only performs, records but teaches music at the Munich Music Academy. She came from a very musical German-Slovak family: her mother and brothers are all pianists.. She started with the piano at age 4 but was already in the Munich Music Academy at 9! She has never left music since. When she was young, she admired the performance of Gould and Kissin as pianist and Vengerov as violinist. She has appeared with numerous world class conductors and played concertos of all the major composers. I don't know how she did with the baroque composers but from what I heard last night, she's really good at the music of Brahms, which I am sure she simply adores. It's impossible to do well with the music of a composer one doesn't love.
Her first offering of the evening was a piece by a Dvorak (1841-1904) composed in 1893, The Sonatina for Violin in G, Op 100, whilst he was in America as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. As all Latin-based words, "ito/a" means a diminutive version of something of normal size. So "sonatina" actually means a little Sonata. This sonatina was written for Dvorak's 6 children. It was intended a fun piece, a bit rough in the first movement in Allegro risoluto, with some pretty strong rhythm and a bit uncouth but playing around with some light lilting passages and a bit nostalgic for his native Bohemia in the slow and heavy second movement in larghetto. This was followed by a much brighter, faster and much and a bit cheeky third movement, a Scherzo in molto vivace and a very energetic finale which recalls some of the earlier nostalgic motives. I don't why. Fischer seems to emphasize the lower notes much more than those in the higher registers, giving the piece a heaviness which I think ought not to be there in some of lighter and brighter passages. The piano accompaniment Martin Helmchen does little to brighten up the piece. To me, there's far too much use of the pedal. It felt as if it's all brume and fog and hardly any sunlight.
The next piece is a much lighter piece: Schubert (1797-1828)'s Sonatina in G Minor, D 408 which he wrote in 1816. The first movement in Allegro giusto may open strongly but it soon engages in some light- hearted fooling around. The second movement in Andante goes at a leisurely, elegant pace, full of tenderness ,much more contemplative and a bit sad and ends very quietly. The third movement is a dainty Menuetto in Allegro vivace, full of measured but light-hearted grace. One can almost smell the soil of the Bohemia country village as its peasants go about cheerfully in their daily business, not hesitating from time to time to take a break to dance a little fast paced dance or have a little walk by the tree-strewn rivulets in the final movement.
After the intermission, it's another piece by Schubert: his Sonatina for Violin in D, D 384, which he wrote in 1816. This is another delightful work, the fist movement in Allegro molto, which opens strongly with three notes, with the opening theme constantly being repeated in higher and higher scales, with heavier or lighter rhythm and sound and ending with two abrupt notes. The slow second movement in adagio, after opening with a stately introduction, drifts into a very lyrical passage, full of heavenly peace and tranquility. The third movement in Allegro vivace, is full of lively energy, yet never overwhelming and imbued as it were with a certain restrained grace. With the first two pieces, somehow, Fischer seems unable to abandon herself to the music. I suspect that she might be a little too concerned about the sound of the violin having to penetrate to the end of the hall and therefore played passages which ought to have been played with much less force with unrelenting and almost equal energy thus diminishing the dynamic contrast which could have been there. But with the third, she was beginning to be a bit more relaxed and the music improved accordingly.
The highlight of the evening for me, is without a doubt, her rendering of Johanne' Brahms' (1833-1897) Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor Op 108 I : Allegro II: Adagio, III: Un poco Presto e con sentimento IV Presto agitato. She manages to completely transform my initial prejudice against her manner of playing. In this piece, she found herself in her true elements. If one may use some old fashioned ideas about the ingredients of the universe: earth, water, air, fire and say that first three pieces were a bit lacking in air and fire and thus too earth-bound, in this final piece, the two last elements returned in full force, giving the piece a harmony of complimenting contrasts which makes it a sheer joy to be able to listen to it. For this piece alone, it' feels as if the it's worth while to sit through first half of concernt, when I was constantly hoping for the sound to brighten up and for her violin to deliver that missing sparkle in its sound which I think must be there. This piece by Brahms hardly needs any introduction. The tenderness, the melancholy, the humor, the cheekiness, the sudden mood swings, the fire, the drama are all there. She got thunderous applauses. She more than deserves them. Apparently she was happy with herself too. So she gave us two encores, both by, who else, Brahms! As she felt her contractual obligations had been more than amply fulfilled , she was at last free to be herself. She could simply allow herself to indulge in the joy of playing the violin and surprise surprise for me, the piano. The name of the first encore piece is a very familiar piece but for some reason its name escapes me. But thanks to fellow blogger Eric Tang, I got it now. It's Brahm's Scherzo from his FAE Sonata. The second is Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 for two pianos which she played brilliantly with her accompanist. She played the piano almost as well as she played the violin. She ended the concert very happy. So did I..