Fenella Barton & Simone Dinnerstein at Wigmore Hall

Sonata in C minor, BWV1017
Sonata in A for Piano and Violin, Op.47 (Kreutzer)
Variations on Bach Chaconne in D minor [World premiere]
Fantasy in C, D934

Fenella Barton (violin) & Simone Dinnerstein (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 14 June, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Fenella BartonFour years ago, Fenella Barton fell victim to rheumatoid arthritis. Her professional career was in jeopardy. However, through a combination of “cutting-edge and complementary treatments” (and, I don’t doubt, willpower), she is now symptom-free. This concert gave aid to the Arthritis Research Campaign.

Meanwhile, her friend of 20 years’ standing, Simone Dinnerstein, shot to the top from virtually nowhere, very much on the strength of her astonishingly virile performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations – at Carnegie Hall, on a Telarc CD and at the Wigmore Hall. Her playing gave the concert a vigorous majesty.

Dinnerstein has a large, robust approach to Bach, portraying the JSB of the portraits – broad-boned, muscular, tactile and virile. Listening to Dinnerstein thrilled the senses – the heart raced and the blood tingled. Her playing is gusty and gutsy, and generous. She reminds me of Myra Hess (whom I just remember) and recalls the vigorous yet perceptive and scholarship-aware performances of Jill Crossland.

It took a little time for Fenella Barton’s violin to come through. At first, her tone was thin and rather small, yet warm. The Adagio brought a sweet-toned, cool-headed expressiveness to the fore – and the concluding Allegro gained from both women’s spirited vigour.

Simone Dinnerstein The highlight of the evening was the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata. Barton and Dinnerstein were now in their stride, magnificently and indestructibly. In this most powerful of performances, their strong, exuberant pulse drove ahead with exhilarating thrust and bold, brash gaiety. Beethoven was present – dynamically so – at the height of his powers, at the peak of his energy. He was extrovert, direct and absolutely stunning. Technically, the writing is not the most demanding Beethoven ever set down, but it constitutes a brilliant virtuoso declaration of buoyant emotions.

Philip Lasser’s Variations constituted a grave exploration of facets of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. Following Bach’s own process in the Goldberg variations, he focuses on “primordial motives” that are “buried deep” within the musical material – “seeds, born mostly in the ornaments” that he encourages to grow. In addition, he works in “eternal circles and spirals, from a beginning back to a beginning”. The outcome is a sequence of somewhat scholarly musings on a powerful original. Barton and Dinnerstein adapted their approach to match. This was restrained Bach, in repose – with muted but sensitive and intelligent further commentary from Lasser. He shares out the expressing this stillness equally between violin and piano; they frequently alternated as soloist and accompanist but occasionally played in unison. Lasser’s contribution was sometimes contrapuntal, sometimes harmonised, and never discordant. I’m not sure that it added greatly to the awesome original.

Schubert’s Fantasy was a delight – a little over-long at this juncture, though. The opening gave a fascinating illustration of how acutely Barton and Dinnerstein respect each other. The piece opens with the piano recalling a large river in full flow. The violin enters, softly – hardly audible. My first reaction was of alarm: Dinnerstein had misjudged the volume; Schubert’s heavenly melody will not come through. Not a bit of it! Dinnerstein knew exactly what she was doing. Very slightly, she reduced the volume of her accompaniment so that the melody could just be heard – clearly – above the heaving swell.

In the loose, ensuing display, Barton engaged compellingly in promoting Schubert’s honeyed and autumnal phrases: his last work for violin and piano. Dinnerstein, meanwhile, ran formidably through a gamut of accompanying devices typical of Schubert – tremolos, unison octaves, stamping rhythms, dizzying passagework and mighty scales. The later introduction of ‘Sei mir gegrusst’ with variations was delectable. This performance drew me warmly into the sturdy solidity of Schubert’s genius.

The single encore returned to Bach – and to Barton: the plaintive violin obbligato to a sacred aria from, I seem to remember, “St Matthew Passion”.

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