The mercurial, magisterial, miraculous, mysterial Patricia Kopatchinskaja was in town for a Wigmore Hall happening. Her search for liberté, her tumultuous desire to reach not just beyond the notes but deep into the chemistry, impulses and nerve lanes, the darker recesses, of the creative mind, is extraordinary to witness. Her violin – a Pressenda from 1834 – is an extension of herself. It speaks, sings, sighs, shouts ... quarrels, rejects, whispers, yearns … caresses, scratches. Emotions are stripped bare, within a micro-flash particles of sound, the stuff of dreams and mechanics, journey from sunshine to moonlight to beyond Andromeda – and the rooms and souls of old friends are never quite the same again. The “My Kitchen” section of her website is a paradise of self-revelation. The people she admires (how many musicians today, let alone violinists, know of Maria Yudina?). Her passion to “try out, discuss and play new pieces, preferably while the ink is still wet and no 'experts' or rigid traditions impede freedom”. “A really 'historical' performance must reveal how Vivaldi could be daring, Beethoven terroristic, Brahms suffering or Hartmann's Concerto funèbre an outcry against the barbarism of the Nazis.” Interpretation is “a very private affair, nobody can tell you how to do it”. “We all need madness in our worlds.”
Opening this recital, Schumann's First Violin Sonata (1851) – its second high-profile London airing in ten days, following Jansen and Argerich at the Barbican – started silkily out of nowhere. But then turned into something altogether more tensioned and psychologically uneasy, especially in the central intermezzo where legato and staccato took on the character of human speech. Abruptly juxtaposed/opposed dynamics and accents, viscerally dramatised articulation, and an undulation of tempo following phrases and paragraphs rather than merely the instruction of the page, have long been distinctive Kopatchinskaja hallmarks – her Fazil Say collaborations a few years ago having challenged every convention in the book, who'll ever forget her life-and-death renewal of Ravel's Tzigane at the Wigmore last March?
The Debussy G-minor (1917) and Poulenc (1943-49) Sonatas were given the kind of readings that necessitated a fresh reconsideration of the scores, a going back to fundamentals. Pitch and time bending, heavy portamento, pursuing attacks, effects and nuances, violence and murmurs, the heightening of incidents (and the apparently incidental) to unprecedented levels of perception, the re-focussing of content and context, were common to both performances. Anyone expecting a 'comfortable' Gallic view of the Debussy, gloss before grit, the measured 'beauty' of, say, David Oistrakh, had a shock coming. Concerned with neither palatability nor received opinion, here was a palpable “fantasy of sensibilities”, to quote Gerald Larner's programme note “a kind of caprice of stylistic allusions”. The outcome was arresting, a sort of marriage between Debussy and Bartók – unholy yet, given Debussy's lifelong affair with the exotic and oriental, perhaps not all that surprising. Exquisite things were for the finding but not the taking.
All the notes in ways we don't usually hear them, cut-throat razoring, the celebration of the infinitesimal, sent Poulenc and the audience on a high trajectory mission. Here, Kopatchinskaja seemed to be saying, was not just a valediction in memory of Lorca (most beautifully so in the held lyricism of the central movement – intimately, magically projected) but glimpses into extra-mural spaces past, imagined or yet to be born, intimations of Stefan George's Entrückung (“Air from another planet”), Huxley's dystopian Brave New World, lurking somehow between the staves. By the end of the Finale, Poulenc was no longer the fastidious Parisian, the “erotic petit maître” of boulevards and cafés, but a fist-pounding grandee of the cosmos on an epic expedition. I found the vision as invigorating as it was terrifying.
With György Kurtág's aphoristic Tre pezzi (1979) Kopatchinskaja went up a gear, the quietness of her playing on the threshold of audibility, her scurries, lisps, suspirations, cadences and die-aways, the accuracy of her intonation, displaying remarkable bow control and placement. Impressions d'enfance (1940), George Enescu's late look-back to his Romanian childhood, with its densely written-out detail and complex texturing, rhythmic intricacies, timbral palette, and prefatory explanation of dynamics, symbols and articulations, is a defyingly testing work, Balkan in genesis (Kopatchinskaja's Moldavian roots) yet anything but style populaire in manner or execution. Well, almost. On this occasion, certainly – the generosity of rubato, the stretching of sound and time, the sense of the violin addressed as an old gypsy primás might play someone, breath and response close enough to kindle embers into flames – places and perfumes east of Vienna kept fascinatingly floating in and out of frame. Kopatchinskaja – standing for the opening, ‘The Strolling Fiddler’, but otherwise sitting (as throughout the concert) – introduced each section across the music, charmingly, her wide-eyed innocence giving little away of the goblins, traumas and storms to come. Any and every effect was brilliantly, luridly painted, not least the realist/futuristic squeaks, mutterings, trillings and nightmares of the stratospheric, scarcely believable ‘Bird in a Cage’ (so remote from Alyabyev's nineteenth-century artifice) and ‘Wind in the Fireplace’ cameos.
A standing ovation was obliged with a single encore, the Finale from Mozart's early Viennese E-flat Sonata (K380) – a robust reading of cat-and-mouse humour, taking every opportunity to milk the many pauses to maximum comedic effect whatever their metrical grammar (a growing trend these days, witness Giovanni Antonini's way with Haydn).
Kopatchinskaja's partner, collaborator and re-creative genius was the St Petersburg-born Polina Leschenko. She's a powerful force of nature, superbly equipped pianistically , scintillatingly brilliant, and not in the slightest bit shy of making herself heard. She can play as gently as the finest around (better often), but can also rise to the moment with a thunder, theatricality and rooted left-hand worthy of an inspired orchestra. Watching Kopatchinskaja's every move and gesture, wanting practically to converse, her ensemble was refined and tight, every attack keenly judged and weighted. The unison ‘Lullaby’ of the Enescu, the slow movement of the Poulenc, yielded memorable layers of phrased colour. Bass registers touched with sensual voluptuousness, splinterings of upper-octave chords shattered with force, were all a part of a considerable, impressive armoury. Generally, her full-lid Steinway proved equal to the task – but in the Finale of the Schumann and the Mozart encore it reacted a little heavily to semiquaver detail, a certain opaqueness depriving the music of absolute clarity.