Nikolaj Znaider & Robert Kulek

Sonata for Violin and Piano
Sonata in C minor for Piano and Violin, Op.30/2
Phantasy, Op.47, for violin with piano accompaniment
Sonata in A for Violin and Piano

Nikolaj Znaider (violin) & Robert Kulek (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 February, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Nikolaj Znaider’s first London recital ended in triumph after a rather less than engaging first half, Debussy’s Sonata suggesting itself as a far from ideal opener, music that needs more veiled and mysterious colours and a sense of distance, which may have come from a more warmed-up Znaider. Otherwise he brought largesse and fluidity to Debussy’s compact three-movement design, but not always innocence or tenderness, although his shapely and sustained way with the increasingly impulsive finale caught the air.

Robert Kulek was an ever-reliable pianist, sometimes too much the accompanist (although maybe it was Znaider who might have reined-in his concerto-style address), and Kulek needed to be more assertive in the Beethoven, described as for piano and violin, and less thick-sounding. Anyway, Kulek and Znaider were rather strait-laced and lacking in wit; yet the final pages, as in the Debussy, raised the stakes.

Having changed ends, on the basis that Schoenberg’s 1949 Phantasy is “for violin and piano accompaniment”, the second half found these artists in winning form. Intriguingly, given Schoenberg’s designation, Kulek was more assertive; at last, a real duo. And what a revelation Phantasy proved. Nine minutes flew by as Znaider and Kulek brought out a range of expression, subtlety and narrative; Schoenberg’s ink seemed fresh on the page given the music’s freshness and vitality.

Similarly, César Franck’s Sonata had a vibrancy that compelled attention, whether in Znaider’s rich-toned soaring and the eavesdropping conversation of the ‘Recitative-Fantasia’. The finale was beautifully shaped at a flowing tempo; slightly too flowing, it seemed – but Znaider had an ace up his sleeve: on its final appearance, Franck’s glorious melody was slowed and tonally pared-down to magical effect; a delaying tactic of the best kind. Robert Kulek’s playing was fully up to the demands of Franck’s writing and he contributed an equality of sound and perception; this is, after all, a work for violin and piano.

In the few minutes of added-on time, Znaider and Kulek sneaked in a couple more winners, both Heifetz arrangements, one from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and a charmer by Manuel Ponce, his “Estrellita”, which could not have been more beautifully ‘sung’ (southern comfort indeed). As Znaider suggested in his few introductory words, in a noise-polluted world (moronic thumping pop music and soulless electronic sounds), the old-world charm that Znaider created here was a moment to treasure.

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