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Review: Youthful and visionary Schubert from Helene Pohl and Jian Liu

Within a fortnight of the NZ String Quartet’s inspirational presentation at the NZ School of Music’s Adam Concert Room of two major works from the string quartet repertoire, we were, at another lunchtime concert, able to enjoy for a second time, on this occasion, the artistry of one of the Quartet’s players – the group’s

leader, Helene Pohl, performing in tandem with the much-acclaimed Jian Liu, who’s currently the Head of Piano Studies at the School. Of course, the NZSQ has been the quartet-in-residence at the School of Music in Wellington since 1991 – so we’ve lately been relishing the fruits of some of the performing talents among the School’s remarkable line-up of current tutors.

The programme chosen by this concert’s performers captured something I thought both rare and vital – consisting of two works for violin and piano by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), it managed to highlight aspects of the best of both the youthful and mature composer’s efforts, beginning with a Sonata in G Minor D.408, which, along with two other works, was written between March 1816 and August 1817. The three weren’t published until 1836, eight years after the composer’s death, and were styled as “Sonatinas”, despite Schubert’s autograph scores referring to them as “Sonatas”.

They’re works which have been largely regarded as “apprentice” efforts by posterity, as the diminutive “Sonatina” title implies, coming down to us with judgements such as “(they) breathe an intimate atmosphere, requiring no virtuoso bravura from their performers”, and “these are violin sonatas of the older, Mozartian type, with the violin playing a subordinate role to that of the pianoforte”. However, in Pohl’s and Liu’s hands, the G Minor work came across as rather more interesting than either of those descriptions might have suggested.

Nothing like an angular unison to grab the attention at the start! – the piano made something poetic from the utterance, the violin then continuing the line, the music’s mood almost naively changing to one of cheerful insouciance, Pohl’s violin somewhat garrulously “running” with the piano’s strolling gait before Liu deliciously “leaned” into a more march-like sequence, inspiring a wayfarer’s song-like response from the violin.

A minor-key lament by the violin began the central development, but the mood seemed delightfully ambivalent as major, then minor sequences unceremoniously pushed one another out of the way throughout, the invention here sharply-etched and tautly-woven by both players. What gave the discourse increased strength and gravitas was the decision by the musicians to play all the repeats, with the resulting amalgam of absorbing reinforcement and variation that such a course enables – even at this stage of proceedings I thought it considerably enhanced the work’s potential for depth of feeling and detailing, and especially when delivered with such committed focus as here.

A sweet, beguiling melody on the violin, gorgeous in effect, opened the slow movement, the piano answering with a chirpier phrase, which was then reinforced by deeper, viola-like tones from the stringed instrument, husky and characterful. I loved the touches of “misterioso” in the development, freely modulating, and here being “breathed” so enthrallingly by the duo. With the repeat came the recapitulation’s “second’ return, here brought sweetly to mind by the players like an old friend or fond memory.

Despite the players’ advocacy the Menuetto did seem “lighter” in content, though the lovely, flowing Trio subject made for a heart-warming contrast to the somewhat rumbustious opening – certainly the repeats helped give the music greater substance, however illusionary! The finale brought a touch of flowing minor-key melody before vigorously “majoring” – Pohl and Liu “went with” the music’s changeable character so sharply and directly, veering from the Schubertian to the Mozartean in a trice, and back again (Schubert’s homage to the “tried and true”, perhaps….)

The development was a brief call-to-arms, more for show than with any “action” in mind, and the recapitulation brought the silveriest of tones from Pohl’s violin – so enchanting! Again the repeats seemed to bolster the music’s confidence in itself, so that we were freshly amazed by Schubert’s invention rather than inclined to relegate the music to “also-ran” status. Helped by Pohl’s and Liu’s intensities the music on this occasion was made to punch well above its normal weight, for our excitement and satisfaction.

Having plunged with her pianist straight into the earlier work at the concert’s beginning, Pohl then “introduced” the second half’ for us. Fascinatingly, she talked about the Sonata we’d just heard in relation to the great Fantasie in C Major (about to be played), reflecting for us on the “change” in Schubert’s music over the duration between the two, and offering some thoughts on these differences.

I thought her mentioning, firstly, the influence of Beethoven’s music, and then the effects of Schubert’s worsening health at this time, made for telling ideas to ponder – I hadn’t considered as strongly her third “factor’ which she outlined just as convincingly – the rise in instrumental virtuosity at this time, led by the example of  violinist Nicolo Paganini, said to be in league with the forces of darkness(!).

Schubert wrote the Fantasie, his last work for violin and piano, in December 1827, for one Josef Slavik, whom the composer described at some stage as ‘a second Paganini” and accordingly produced a work bristling with virtuoso difficulties, as much, it ought to be said, for the pianist as for the violinist. After the work’s premiere, in Vienna in January 1828, a critic reported that the work did not widely please as was hoped: – “The Fantasie occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to the pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of this piece.”

Nowadays, the Fantasie is regarded as a masterwork, bold in its conception, brilliant in its execution and heartfelt in its emotional content. What obviously confused the Viennese was the work’s length and its out-of-the-ordinary structure – it’s basically a bringing-together of contrasted episodes around a Schubert song with a number of variations – the song is Schubert’s popular setting of Friedrich Rückert’s Sei mir gegrüsst! (‘I greet you!’). Violinist and pianist played a measure of the song for us, after which Pohl briefly outlined for us the structure of the complete work – and then we were off!

The piano began, with tremolandi that gurgled and bubbled as an oscillating sea of sensations, above which the solo violin soared sweetly and surely, the piano momentarily dancing before resuming its tremulous inclinations. A brief but intense violin cadenza-like flourish (not as clean as the player might have wished, on this occasion, but the poise never faltered), and Pohl and Liu began a delightfully-inflected Hungarian-like dance sequence in canonic form, the music varying its delivery after  several measures, becoming trenchant in places and releasing surges of exhilarating”heart-in-mouth” energy – the momentary strains placed on each player by what seemed like fiendishly insistent figurations merely added to the excitement and tension of the performance, the return of the dance bringing momentary relief before the music’s elemental surgings again took charge, great lurches of emphasis engendered by the writing and met with full-blooded involvement from both instruments. Gradually the piano led the way towards the music’s elevated central sequences, a brief and resonant pause leading to the opening strains of the song Sei mir gegrüsst! 

First piano and then violin gave their voices entirely to song, Liu investing his two augmented sections of the melody with tremendous, almost orchestral, weight and emphasis, contrasting with the violin’s sweetness when it returned each time. A first variation was polonaise-like in rhythm, engagingly chunky, and almost rough-hewn, rather than suave and well-tempered, while a second produced cascading piano notes and string pizzicati, both instruments varying their figurations with impromptu-like flourishes, the violin reverting to arco for each measure’s concluding phrase!

A third variation seemed even more hair-raising, the violinist rushing excitingly through her vertiginous fingerwork, and the pianist’s fingers maniacally dancing atop the instrument’s keys. Pohl and Liu seemed to play all the music’s repeats in this work as well, further intensifying and enriching the range and potential delights of the territories, and creating an ethos of magnificent, give-it-all-you’ve-got playing! Variation Four seemed then to turn the music on its heels and point it back towards the way it had begun, firstly the piano and then the violin arching the music gently but surely away from the song’s A-flat major and back towards the opening C Major.

This time the piano tremolandi colluded with the violin’s ever-intensifying, unwardly-pushing lines towards what I’ve always thought of as an orgasmic release-point, a massively-affirming dance of life, carrying the music’s continually-burgeoning energies towards a near nirvana of fulfilment with the ecstatic return of Sei mir gegrüsst! (again, exquisitely silvery violin tones joining in with the piano’s pearl-like purity). It could have been left there by the composer – but having “bought into” the realm of virtuoso excitement, the music, almost instinctively, seemed to unleash the “coiled spring” of pent-up virtuosity allied to musical brilliance, a concluding cataclysm of joyous-sounding energies completing the triumph! What a work and what a performance!

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Helene Pohl (violin) and Jian Liu (piano)

SCHUBERT – Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor D.408 Fantasie in C Major for Violin and Piano D.934

Adam Concert Room, Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Victoria University of Wellington

The original review can be found here.

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