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Bartók & Brahms songs & sonatas

(Stephen Kovacevich chamber music residency)

Bartók Sonata for solo violin Sz. 117
Bartók Lieder Op. 16
Brahms 2 Songs with viola Op. 91
Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Op. 78

Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)
Alina Ibragimova (violin)
Viviane Hagner (violin)
Atar Arad (viola)
Stephen Kovacevich (piano) - pictured

Wigmore Hall, 16 October 2008

This interesting but fnally frustrating concert was pre-figured by the sight of the piano-in-waiting, its lid on short stick, rarely necessary or desirable.

Whilst the widely admired Stephen Kovacevich (formerly plain Stephen Bishop, then Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich) - q.v. Musical Pointers on his Beethoven concertos last year - played diligently and responsively to all his colleagues, it was more as an old-time accompanist, like those before Gerald Moore became "unashamed", and parity with soloists became the norm. He seemed concerned that the piano should never give a rough sound, and he pedalled throughout more than to my taste.

In the rarely heard early Bartók songs (1916) I wondered if he was adjusting so as not to drown Monica Groop, but her voice proved full and well projected. So was it the dark, melancholy Ady texts (sung in German translation from the Hungarian) that prompted the smoothing out of the acerbic harmonies, only they could tell us? Whatever, a welcome revival of one of Bartok's unique cycles, which I studied with my son in the '60s - we thought about programming the delicious Village Scenes - but had scarcely heard of them since then...

The easy, affectionate romantic style of Brahms viola songs suited Groop's rich and eloquent mezzo, and with the obligatti strongly etched by Atar Arad, Kovacevich's support at the keyboard posed no problems there.

But the key to Kovasevich's way during the evening was revealed more clearly in the (too us) greatly disappointing take on the first violin sonata; the most lyrical of them it is true, but surely not meant to become as rarified and effete as in this enervating account with the young Alina Ibragimova, formerly of the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Music. Beauty and pianissimo was the ideal they sought together; "raindrops" became a mist... But the audience seemed satisfied, and I regret there were no other critics in sight who may have taken quite another view of this series.

The last shall be first; the Munich violinist Viviane Hagner began the evening with the best account of the Bartok solo sonata I'd ever heard; completely riveting and generously phrased and articulated on her Strad, which was magnificently enhanced in the cupola of Wigmore Hall. It was worth the journey across London for that alone, and the Bartok songs gave us a first half to ponder with great satisfaction during the interval.



Beethoven& Shostakovichaviv

Beethoven Quartets Op 74 & 59/1
Shostakovich Quartet No 8

Aviv String Quartet

Wigmore Hall 15 October 2008

The latest Wigmore Hall visit of the Aviv String Quartet the evening before leaves us with little to say.

Standard works ensured a full house, downstairs and up in the gallery, and the notably silent listening of the audience denoted satisfaction. But had their Shostakovich 8 become less forceful and moving than on their fine Dalia Classics DCD 001 disc of the Shostakovich Quartets 8 & 9 received and recommended after they had played No 9 at Wigmore Hall to great acclaim? Two Beethoven middle-period quartets were given assured, euphonious performances with flawless ensemble but no risk-taking; as with Hamelin the previous week, it all sounded too much like a perfectly edited CD, the final feeling left with us a little bland.

Such can be the fruits of the search for perfection? Again, this is a somewhat perverse response to a highly successful revisit to Wigmore Hall by one of the most accomplished quartets now before the public; perhaps it reflects our having heard the standard repertoire just a little too often?

Peter Grahame Woolf