I am sure that, by now, most city music-lovers will be well aware of the bizarre happenings, a month or so ago, when Dr Robert Taub gave the inaugural concert in the new Musica Viva Series, the first event to take place as such, in Levinsky Hall, the University’s new bespoke venue for classical music.
There will certainly be one city youngster who now realizes that text messages, whatever their content, are not always as secure as they thought. The intended recipient did receive the potentially life-threatening message that apparently ‘there was a bomb in the piano’ – but then, so did a number of others in the auditorium, who just happened to be tuned to the same social media platform.
This quite rightly involved a full evacuation, and services of a number of external agencies, but fortunately, the highly-embarrassed perpetrator soon came forward, and the concert then went ahead as planned though, of course, not having had the most ideal of starts.
Tonight’s second concert in the series featured outstanding British violinist Mathilde Milwidsky, accompanied by award-winning composer and pianist Huw Watkins.
It was good to see that hand-held microphones were now in use during the opening pre-concert talk, which was a godsend, because these talks are informal chats, not formal lectures, and are always so interesting and often anecdotal, that it had been a pity that the further back you sat, the less you could enjoy. The microphones still need to be held closer to the face, to do their job efficiently, but this was definitely a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, it was lovely to see the friendship between soloist and accompanist, which later translated into such totally-integrated performances, both in terms of a flawless ensemble, and where the duo appeared inextricably linked, musically.
Programme planning often works really well if you adopt a familiar maxim from the school classroom – start off with the known, and, as a set of effective concert openers, Bartók’s Six Romanian Dances proved absolutely ideal – by no means hackneyed works, but largely familiar in a variety of different versions – for piano, orchestra, or, as here, for the duo.
It then seemed the perfect choice to follow these with two miniatures that Huw Watkins had composed in 2020 and 2003 respectively – ‘Arietta’ and ‘Romance’ – decidedly easy on the ear, yet still harmonically adventurous, and which Mathilde played with real empathy.
The concert was actually titled ‘Virtuoso Violin’, so it wouldn’t be long before Nicolò Paganini made an entrance – and there certainly couldn’t be any grander one that his Twenty-Fourth Caprice for solo violin – and a now-familiar melody that Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Lutosławski, and Andrew Lloyd Webber made famous.
While last month’s bomb scare was nothing more than an unfortunate hoax, Mathilde more than made up for this with a pyrotechnic display worthy of any Sydney-Harbour New Year’s Eve Celebration, with virtually every kind of musical trick in the violinist’s hand-book – and even more besides. But something that set her performance apart from most of the others out there, was the fact that, while the work is undeniably a virtuoso display piece of the highest order, and despite the phenomenal rapidity of her passage-work, articulation, and use of the bow, it still emerged as a complete musical entity, rather than a flaky meringue on the outside, with but little substance inside.
Mathilde then concluded the first half with Huw Watkins’s substantial five-movement Partita for solo violin. This is a fascinating work, especially when compared with the composer’s previous two pieces on the programme, demanding not only a well-honed technique, but equally a well-studied musical and intellectual insight into the intricacies of the score itself – and Mathilde certainly left no stone unturned in her quest to achieve this here.
As a true Elgar aficionado, I was really looking forward to a performance of his glorious Sonata for violin and piano that opened the recital’s second half. There is something unique about Elgar’s musical personality, as it comes through in his writing. My mother always loved the Violin Concerto, and, whenever she listened to it, would say, ‘he must have been a sad man’. I think she got this just right, as, even in his grandest and most opulent creations, his characteristic and yearning falling-sevenths are never very far away.
I am a strong believer that, while it would be possible to give a joined-up performance of Elgar’s Violin Sonata at the age of sixteen or so, his music sounds so much more convincing, when played by someone who has already chalked up a few significant life-experiences, from which they can draw, when empathising with the composer’s writing. For me, Mathilde’s reading absolutely hit the spot, with friend and accompanist Huw Watkins’s support at the piano second to none. All in all I found this a very moving, and humbling experience, and probably for me, the recital’s musical highlight.
Ravel’s ‘Tzigane’ was the perfect work to complete the programme, given that it brought together everything we had so enjoyed during the evening – breath-taking virtuosity, raw passion, heart-felt emotion, and an innate feel for improvisation when required.
This must rank as one of the most impressive examples of solo and duo violin playing I have been privileged to listen to and review for a very long time, and we should all be greatly indebted to the University of Plymouth Arts Institute, and its Director of Music Bob Taub, for making it possible.
It was, in fact, a rare event where Bob wasn’t actually a participant, although he did take on his temporary role as ‘page-turner par excellence’ with his usual enthusiasm and dedication.
If you were to look on the back page of tonight’s programme, you would see details of the next concert in the Musica Viva series, which features a visit from the Southbank Sinfonia, with a programme to include Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, on Saturday February 4 2023 at the usual time.
I can, however, divulge that the Steinway Grand should also be getting an airing that evening, too, when Bob Taub joins conductor Mark Forkgen for a much-loved concerto with an iconic five-bar solo entry from the pianist. Watch this space!
Meanwhile, you can read my full review of Mathilde Milwidsky and Huw Watkins’s duo recital here at Seen and Heard International.
Philip R Buttall
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