Midori was born in Japan in 1971. With this tour, she celebrates her twentieth year of public performance (and the tenth year of her educational foundation). A glance at her discography on Sony reveals a mix of composers from Mozart to Shostakovich via, amongst others, Dvorák, Bartók, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. All of her duo discs feature Robert McDonald as her accompanist.
This Barbican recital was carefully programmed. Dvorák's ever-popular Sonatina, Op. 100/B183 (1893) rubbed shoulders with Schulhoff's Second Violin Sonata (1927) in the first half; Mozart's Sonata for Keyboard and Violin in G, K301/K293a (1778), starting the second part, formed an interesting contrast to Richard Strauss' Violin Sonata in E flat, Op. 18 (1888).
It is interesting to note that, as far as physical height and stature go, McDonald dominates. However, musically, the roles are reversed. Midori's playing has much character and many subtle shades to recommend it; McDonald's playing was ever restrained, rarely peeking out from his (imaginary) accompanist's curtain.
The Dvorák Sonatina set the tone of the recital. Midori's strong first statement was followed by some affectingly wistful phrasing whilst the self-effacing McDonald remained firmly in the background. Midori played the opening of the Larghetto simply and imbued it with melancholy (the Sonatina is one of the works Dvorák composed whilst in the USA); she pointed the Scherzo delightfully and provided a powerful middle section. The finale was presented as, in effect, a Bohemian hoedown (appropriately for the compositional marriage of these two areas). It was full of high spirits.
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was recommended to follow a musical career by Dvorák himself, so this formed a natural link between the two pieces. Schulhoff was a Czech-born Jew who was arrested by the Nazis in 1941 and taken to Wulzberg concentration camp, dying there in 1942 of tuberculosis. He was taught in Leipzig by Reger. His Second Violin Sonata (November 1927) hails from a time when jazz influences were present in his work; Hindemith and Bartók are also audible in the expressive language.
Midori gave this piece her all. Her belief in and dedication to the Schulhoff case was never once in doubt, and MacDonald rose to the challenge of the fiendish piano part. The Hindemith-inflected beginning (complete with a spot-on attack on the high register from Midori) opened a wide-ranging performance. Midori's stopping was a wonder to hear as this piece revealed itself to the audience. There was an almost telepathic link between the two players at times. The finale brought the piece to a rousing close: one could hear Midori's bow biting in to the strings as the momentum built up inexorably towards a virtuoso end.
The Mozart Sonata in G was a stylish opener to Part Two. Midori was clearly inside this music, her perfect trills, clean attack and even scales impeccably judged. McDonald's scalic work did not match Midori's clarity and his approach verged on the literal. The second movement was a disappointment all round. Marked Allegro, this 3/8 was definitely three in a bar as opposed to one in a bar and was, perhaps surprisingly, a bit low on charm - it would have been nice if some sunshine had been let in.
The players obviously felt more at home in Richard Strauss' Violin Sonata of 1888. Despite some disappointing chording from McDonald (more depth of sound was required), this was a committed performance of a work which is contemporary with Don Juan. The highlights of the performance came with the subtleties of Midori's half-voiced playing in the slow movement, and her tender response to that movement as a whole. McDonald's ominous Wagnerian harmonies opened a finale which was virtuoso for both players. The spiky, fragmentary passages were particularly noteworthy in that the tension was not allowed to drop one iota. The performance drew a deserved ovation from an audience which was treated to two encores: Amy Beach's beautiful 'Romance' Op. 23 (1893), which was full of pre-Coplandish, American longing, and included a passage of the utmost delicacy; and the 'Introduction and Tarantella', Op. 43 (1899) by Sarasate, which included some superb harmonics.
Midori has matured into a formidable player, blessed with many sides to her character.
A remarkable concert.