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S & H Recital Review

Mozart, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Beethoven: Mirijam Contzen (Violin) & Florian Uhlig (Piano), Wigmore Hall, 3rd December 2003 (H-T W)

The first question I ask of a musician unknown to me is: do I want to hear this artist again in the foreseeable future. The German pianist Florian Uhlig, who accompanied the young German violinist Mirijam Contzen at her Wigmore Hall recital debut, I know very well and regard him highly. Sadly, I had missed Mirijam Contzen´s London concert engagements with the London Soloists. But knowing of her as one of Tibor Varga´s star students, who won the International Tibor Varga Violin Competition in 1993, when she was only 16, and who plays chamber music with some of the most eminent instrumentalists of our time, led me to have high expectations. However, after the first half of this recital, I felt betrayed and deeply depressed to the point of even considering leaving. But, I stayed and experienced what I had hoped for. Mirijam Contzen showed her true potential as a great artist and a fine musician, whom I now want to hear many more times.

What went wrong in the first half? It was certainly a combination of many factors. The programming for the first half looked ambitious on paper, but it didn’t prove to be ideal. Both artists had put a lot of thought into the structure of their programme. "We were very keen to choose a programme which is marked by contrast. The combination of classical works with compositions from the 20th century presents a challenge, giving way to reciprocal effects through which the innermost core of the work is portrayed. We have attempted to include within the programme pieces, which penetrate into the depths of life – with all its extremes. Works, which speak of vigour and energy as well as of serenity, thus leading the listener into his own inner world." That sounds acceptable, eve if highly intellectual.

To start a recital with Mozart, however, in this case with the second of the lesser known six early `Mannheim´ sonatas in E flat KV 302, is dangerous. Mozart is a killer and should never be used as an opening piece, especially if one considers the acoustical circumstances in a more than half empty Wigmore Hall – something Florian Uhlig should know about. To have the piano lid at its highest opening position and to place the violinist as close as possible next to the pianist does not give the necessary freedom for both instruments to interact and to blossom. Mozart asks for utmost clarity and pearl like beauty. But Mirijam Contzen´s intonation was from the beginning thin - even scratchy. Far too often her playing was overshadowed by the piano and there were some unnatural tempi changes giving the occasional wrong romantic flavour.

To follow Mozart they chose Shostakovich´s monumental late Sonata for Violin and Piano in G op.134, an incredibly sophisticated and complex work, but also one that is very intimate, highly emotional and in no way easily accessible for any audience. He began to write this sonata in 1945, but did not finish it until 1968, dedicating it to David Oistrach, who gave the world premiere on May 3rd 1969. Hidden behind the solutions of a demanding compositional technique we are confronted with Shostakovich´s meditative late style reflecting his loneliness and his difficulties as a composer under Stalin´s dictatorship. Any interpretation has to have the kind of involvement, where the music, its cries and the desperations speak through the body. But with Mirijam Kontzen I had the constant feeling that she distanced herself from the music, stood next to it and did not `penetrate into the depth of life´. I kept being reminded of a quotation from Goethe´s "Faust":  "Unless you feel it, you will never achieve it. / If it doesn´t flow from your soul / with natural easy power / your listeners will not believe it."

After the interval an entirely different Mirijam Contzen appeared, fully involved and producing the most beautiful violin sound. She surprised everybody with "Theme and Variations" by Messiaen, a rarely heard work of astonishing grandeur and organ like richness, which he had written, when he was only 24. Finally, Beethoven´s "Kreutzer" Sonata in A op.47, a touchstone for both pianist and violinist and a vibrant firework display of nearly 40 minutes, which in its first edition contained the description `scritta in uno stilo molto concertante, quasi come d´un concerto´, showed two great musicians in their element. They harmonized and took risks – yet a still quite stormy relationship also promised great results. An encore turned out to be the ultimate highlight: a virtuoso piece by Bartok, articulated with immense temperament and full- blooded intonation. Tibor Varga would have been proud of his former student. One last thought on how to programme those works in a far more unorthodox, and from an audience point, more accessible way: Messiaen – Beethoven - Shostakovich – Mozart!

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt

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