Viktoria Mullova & Katia Labèque

Suite italienne
Bartók arr. Szigeti
Hungarian Folk Tunes [from For Children]
Fantasia in C, D934
Sonata for Violin and Piano

Viktoria Mullova (violin) & Katia Labèque (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 2 December, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

On paper an intruiguing coupling of two very different artists, this programme posed more questions than it answered. The duo of Viktoria Mullova and Katia Labèque duo has just recorded these very works, save the Bartók, for Onyx Classics (ONYX 4015) so the promotional aspect of this recital was clear. They could have added a work or two (though Hélène Grimaud did exactly the same thing promoting her new disc and gave similar short measure at the Royal Festival Hall in February 2005).

The programme itself was well-balanced but the major problem was Mullova’s sound. She delivered the entire concert with a grating, harsh timbre that did not adapt in the slightest from composer to composer. Stravinsky was tonally identical to Schubert. So in the end the only thing to do was to listen to Katia Labèque’s musically superior accompaniments.

Suite italienne is a sequence of arrangements from Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella that he and Samuel Dushkin arranged for violin and piano. Its opening suffered from awkwardness and even bow-shake from Mullova, while the ‘Larghetto’ confirmed Mullova’s reputation as an ice-maiden. The list continues – one enjoyed the piano’s contribution to the ‘Tarantella’ far more than the violin’s. If the ‘Gavotte’ had a greater sense of warm sentimentality, the ‘Menuetto’ could have had more sense of a journey towards the ‘Finale’ (which, in turn, could have had more of a sense of an arrival). Disappointing.

At least Mullova found a deeper sound for the Bartók. The set of Hungarian Folk Tunes represents Joseph Szigeti’s choice from Bartók’s 1908/9 set of easy piano pieces, For Children. Highlights were a beautiful Andante sostenuto and some gorgeous piano accompaniment (with some of Bartók’s quasi-improvisations making inroads into jazz).

The first half lasted a mere 25 minutes. Alas when the second half came, the differences between the two musicians were thrown into higher relief. Schubert’s C major Fantasia is a difficult work for both players, but it was Labèque who found intense beauty in the score. Her tremolandos were absolutely even, her left-hand trills superb. Interpretatively, she is not yet quite up there in the Mitsuko Uchida or Imogen Cooper class (the piano theme of the Andantino revealed that quite clearly) but she clearly has the tonal resources and the sense of scale to become a major Schubert interpreter in her own right. Mullova, in contrast, seemed a million miles away from the composer’s lyrical world. When the music blossomed, Mullova began to screech.

In Ravel’s Sonata, with her jazz affiliations, Labèque was right at home and Mullova less so, despite her interests in pop and jazz. The highlight came with the ‘Blues’ movement (Labèque very much in the swing of things – pardon the pun). A crepuscular Clara Schumann encore (Mullova’s announcement was indistinct but I assume it’s the piece on the Onyx disc, the Romance Opus 22/Number 1) was a nice way to end.

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