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Schumann, Szymanowski, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky:  Jack Liebeck (violin), Katya Apanisheva (piano), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 21.3.2011 (GPu)

, Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 in A minor (Op. 105)
, Mythes (Op. 30)

Prokofiev, Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 in F minor (Op. 80)

Tchaikovsky , Valse Scherzo in C major (Op. 34)

Jack Liebeck and Katya Apanisheva have worked together fairly extensively (especially given their relative youthfulness) and this, no doubt, contributed to that perfection of instrumental balance and interplay which was one of the most striking features of the very enjoyable recital they gave as part of the attractive series of concerts presented under the banner of "Performer +", in which soloists working with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales - either in the concert hall or the recording studio - also present recitals. The idea is a good one and the resulting music has been of a high standard, so it is a great shame that the concerts have, for the most part, been relatively poorly attended (despite the ticket price being very modest). It would be a pity if the sparse audiences led to an abandonment of the scheme after this initial season.

Liebeck and Apanisheva began their programme with the first of Schumann's two violin sonatas, both products of the last phase of his creativity. This sonata was written in just five days - between September 12th and 16th - in 1851, during the composer's spell as Director for Orchestra and Chorus in D├╝sseldorf. It is tempting to hear in some of the music's intensities and changes of mood signs of Schumann's final mental illness; but it is probably best to resist the temptation, since to indulge it may limit the range of our responsiveness to the music itself. Liebeck and Apanisheva were never guilty of hyperbole in their reading of this sonata (the first movement of which carries the marking Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck). If anything they erred on the side of understatement and the result was a performance which was less dramatic than some readings of the sonata, but which had a compensating subtlety full of nuance and graduation. Transitions in that first movement were more organic than rhetorical, though the duo responded fully to the sense of relentless drama in the coda, with Liebeck relishing the abundance of 16 th notes. A momentary note of playfulness was struck in the opening of the second movement, though the fragmentary nature of the materials, avoiding polish and closure, was invested with a sense of instability which was even more striking in the recapitulation of these materials at the movement's close. Even in the restlessly agitated and turbulent final movement there was no hint of indulgence or emotional wallowing; melodic lines retained some gracefulness, the contrast with some of the discords and the acceleration of the fiercely agitated conclusion all the more effective.

The following performance of Szymanowski's three Mythes was profoundly poetic. Szymanowski's highly original (and surely very influential) writing for the violin found Liebeck at his very best, his range of colour and his sureness of technique fully integrated in a well-nigh perfect articulation of the composer's wonderful musical fantasies - whether in the shimmering fluidity of 'La Fontaine d'Arethuse' or the complex self-reflective patterns (fittingly enough) of 'Narcisse', where the waters, shining still, were altogether more placid, or in the ambiguous moods, by turns dreamy and fearful, of 'Dyades et Pan'. The technical demands of Szymanowski's writing - with its sul ponticello bowing, its use of quarter-tones, its tremolandos, its call for simultaneous pizzicato and bowed tones (and much else) - were overcome with such ease by Liebeck that one scarcely thought of it as the considerable demonstration of instrumental virtuosity that it certainly was. The music, as it should, mattered more and, complemented by some superb work by Apanisheva (especially in the third piece), this was an eloquent affirmation of the remarkable beauty of these pieces.

After the interval, Prokofiev's First Violin Sonata, begun in 1938 but not completed until 1946, was played with powerful expressive force. This is a dark and troubled work and Liebeck and Apanisheva gave us a committed and passionate performance of it. Their first movement, beginning as it does with an ominous piano line and some haunting violin writing and ending with muted scales that the composer told David Oistrakh should sound "like the wind in a graveyard", had a brooding 'Gothick' atmosphere in this fine performance, a setting of a mood that nothing that followed could ever fully dissipate. The ensuing allegro was played with percussive intensity, with an all-pervading sense of drama that ensured that the brief lyrical passages were overshadowed by the accuracy and aggressive force with which the main theme was played. A sense of fear, and of a kind of Gothic madness were predominant in this deeply conflicted music. The third movement - an andante - began with tensile grace, full of flutterings and quasi-impressionistic patterns, reminiscent in some ways of the Szymanowski that Liebeck and Apanisheva had played earlier in the evening; but darkness soon reclaimed its ground, and the note of brooding inevitability and disturbance, even of a kind of elegiac desolation, was insistently heard. The declamatory playing of the last movement's opening pages responded admirably to the score's seeming hints of affirmation and hope, even of playfulness; but the hints of folk-dance rhythms don't long survive the darker more troubled shadows. Liebeck and Apanisheva were very impressive in terms of the exactness of the way in which they handled Prokofiev's highly complex instrumental dialogue in this movement; the precision with which the music's fierce accents were managed wholly transcended any question of technical competency, so as to become memorable for its emotional and musical exactness. This was a remarkable performance of what is surely one of Prokofiev's finest works.

The duo closed their programme with some more immediately 'comfortable' music - Tchaikovsky's Waltz Scherzo, composed in 1877 - altogether more elegant and, in a traditional sense, more sophisticated. Though Liebeck responded attractively to its buoyancy and to its attractive melodies; although he demonstrated his ease in the different technical demands that this music presents to a soloist, it isn't really for this piece that I shall remember this concert. It was in the readings of Szymanowski and Prokofiev that we heard the duo of Liebeck and Apanisheva at their considerable best.

Glyn Pursglove

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