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S & H Recital Review

Hindemith, Brahms, Bach, Saint-Saëns Midori (violin); Robert McDonald (piano). Barbican Hall, Tuesday, April 13th, 2004 (CC)

Midori is a violinist of real imagination, possessed of an astonishing technique. Her solo recitals with her regular accompanist Robert McDonald (with whom she enjoys an evident rapport) find her at home and comfortable. Even the presence of TV cameras (for BBC4) failed to impact on this – yet recently (minus TV), Midori did not make a massive impression in the Dvorak Concerto at the ‘other place’ (the Festival Hall in January this year). She seems more at ease on the recital platform, where she is clearly in charge and McDonald is a very self-effacing accompanist. Also, it is there she can experiment with interesting combinations of repertoire, as here (how often do you get to hear Hindemith’s Violin Sonata in E flat, Op. 11 No. 1, played by a major artist?); her October 2002 recital, again at the Barbican, pitted Schulhoff and lesser-known Richard Strauss against Dvorák and Mozart.

Hindemith is a fascinating choice with which to begin a recital. His brief, two-movement Violin Sonata in E flat of 1918 is well worth searching out for rehearing (a pity the programme notes were so brief – necessarily so, as all that was provided as an A4 handout, only one side of which was given over to the music itself). It took a while for balance between the two soloists to feel secure (McDonald threatening to overwhelm Midori in the opening movement) but once this was quickly sorted out the performance was little short of revelatory. As so often with Hindemith, the piano part is itself a major challenge, and McDonald projected the obsessive march-like characteristics of the first movement well. But what stood out was the players’ projection of the music of the dance (bitter-sweet at times). McDonald could have made more of the dark lower register, but the prevailing impression was of something compelling in the understatement of Midori’s playing. Could they be persuaded to record this work, I wonder (or is it already in the can?) For the moment, there is an account on Dabringhaus und Grimm played by Ida Bieler and Kalle Randalu, MDG304 0691-2, for further exploration.

The Brahms G major Sonata (1879) was the perfect companion-piece. This represents Brahms at his warmest, and Midori responded with a liquid, seamless legato against McDonald’s glowing piano chords at the opening. It was just that bit too rehearsed, though, lacking in the final analysis that quasi-improvised air that characterizes the greatest accounts. The players then underplayed the contrasts in the score – it was clear that nothing, but nothing, was going to disturb this atmosphere. A special word or two of praise to Robert McDonald for taking the difficulties of the piano part fully in his stride. Alas, his chordal opening to the second movement was not the rapt sequence it should be, neither did he evoke the autumnal radiance inherent in the score. It was left to Midori to realise the music’s lyric potential. The performance only really and truly warmed into Brahms’ world in the finale, which included some ravishing half-voice from Midori.

Modern Bach opened the second half. Peaceful and tasteful, the first movement led to a jolly Allegro assai. The canon of the Andante unfolded well, and articulation was fully praise-worthy from Midori in the finale, but the general impression was that this was something of a token gesture. Midori, McDonald and (probably) the whole of the audience were in reality waiting for the pyrotechnics of the Saint-Saëns.

And how she delivered. In fact, both of them did (just how many notes are there in the piano part, I wonder). The First Violin Sonata in D minor, Op. 75 found the Midori-McDonald partnership at its best. The highlight was the tender and delicate Adagio, closely followed by the feather-light Scherzo (Saint-Saëns’ Elfentanz, perhaps?). If the finale was more ‘Prestissimo molto’ than the prescribed ‘Allegro molto’, it certainly worked in context, massively impressive technically (from both protagonists), but also capturing the Romantic sweep of the piece in the process.

A recital that included some truly memorable moments and that was never less than fascinating.

Colin Clarke

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