Hampstead and Highgate Festival – Stephen Kovacevich & Sara Trickey

Partita in D, BWV828 – Allemande
Piano Sonata in A, D959
David Matthews
Adonis, for violin and piano, Op.105
Sonata in A for Violin and Piano

Stephen Kovacevich (piano) & Sara Trickey (violin)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 14 May, 2008
Venue: St John-at-Hampstead, Church Row, London NW3

Unsurprisingly given the programme and the participants, a substantial audience filled St John-at-Hampstead and was rewarded with an outstanding concert. Indeed the performances of both major works, the Schubert and Franck, would have done credit to any of world’s great concert halls. To have music-making of this quality as part of the Hampstead and Highgate Festival – especially for those of us fortunate enough to live locally – was riches indeed.

Stephen KovacevichThe Mozart piano sonata originally billed was dropped in favour of the ‘Allemande’ from J. S. Bach’s D major Partita, the sensible rationale for this change being that combined with the expansive Schubert sonata the recital’s first half would have otherwise been overlong. In Stephen Kovacevich’s sensitive understated hands the ‘Allemande’ – gently hypnotic and reflective in mood – mirrored precisely the dying evening light flooding through the church’s stained glass West Windows behind the pianist.

The A major (D959) is arguably the most successful of all Schubert’s pianos sonatas partly because all four movements work equally well. Unconventional structures perfectly accommodate Schubert’s frequent digressions, yet it is not a note too long. For instance, instead of a conventional first movement development making use of existing material, Schubert interpolates what almost amounts to a separate ‘ballade’; and the loping 3/8 Andantino second movement is violently disrupted by one of those tornadoes that erupt from nowhere. But both movements are saved structurally by a powerful sense of homecoming at their close, the initial material now completely transfigured and cast in a different light by what has gone before. If Schubert is a musical voyage, Kovacevich is an experienced traveller and one with the courage to face up to a few bumps along the way in the interest of the larger musical picture.

This was a magnificent and penetrating account. Especially memorable was the first movement’s epilogue, the music fragmenting into a series of silences as the initial material was recalled as though now heard through the prism of a distant memory. The Andantino had a menacing lilt before being punctuated by a musical storm of quite exceptional vehemence. The scherzo was fleet of foot, making the most of silences, and the finale existed on a continuum of sound, yet never for a moment was there the slightest doubt as to where its single jugular moment lay before turning full-circle. Seldom can Leschetizky’s famous injunction to the young Schnabel – “You are never a pianist; you are a musician” – have seemed so apt.

Sara Trickey. Photograph: saratrickey.com David Matthews’s Adonis, a three-movement work commissioned for the 25th-anniversary of the Presteigne Festival 2007, was written for Sara Trickey and here introduced by the composer. Both composer and violinist studied Classics at university. Trickey asked Matthews for a piece that would have some connection with Greek Myth. To compound this, George Vass, the Presteigne Festival Director (and of Hampstead and Highgate), asked for the inclusion of a Welsh folksong. The result, essentially a re-telling of the Adonis story – his birth out of a myrrh tree, Venus’s love for him and his indifference, his death in a boar hunt and his rebirth as a symbol of Spring – is a work which appropriately culminates in the Welsh folksong ‘My love she’s a Venus’. Obligingly, to familiarise us with the tune the composer sang the song for us – very well, too, albeit minus the original Welsh words! This is accessible tuneful music, a latter-day pendant to Szymanowski’s Myths, and makes considerable demands on the performers (some of the violin writing is stratospherically high); it received a commendably sure-footed performance.

César Franck (1822-90)Ever since Ysaÿe gave the premiere, César Franck’s Violin Sonata has been a staple of the repertoire and of most of the greatest violinists. As yet Trickey may lack the profile of some of her more famous predecessors and contemporaries, yet this was a uniquely satisfying performance, purely musical values well to the fore. All-too-often the sonata is used as an excuse for a violinistic high-wire act with the pianist reduced to the role of accompanist. This was a real partnership of equals (Kovacevich’s earliest recordings were with Jacqueline du Pré – as Stephen Bishop – and he is an excellent chamber-music player).

Seldom have the sonata’s inter-linked movements elided so logically into each other or the thematic connections between them fallen quite so naturally into place. Trickey and Kovacevich explored the work’s introspection, too, catching perfectly the gentle rocking motion of the very opening and finding a different tone of voice in the Chaconne-like third movement before the shadowy reprise of the opening theme. There was a joyous unforced elation to the concluding canon, a quality of patience, and when the floodgates finally opened there was no doubt that we had been treated to something wholly remarkable. Fortunately any temptation to an encore was resisted.

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