Brahms, Bravo, Bravi, *
Brahms: The Violin Sonatas
Lee Shi Mei and Lim Yan
3 Jan 2014 . Sat
Esplanade Recital Studio
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108
Playing the devil’s advocate may not come easy, but is certainly amusing and somewhat exciting. Going off the beaten track pioneered by two timelier reviews, this one seeks to explore political incorrectness just a bit more and bring some balance to the
Building a recital programme around a textbook/classic recording structure is never easy, especially when lurking critics, and wannabes such as this writer, can easily tear the live versions apart by simple comparison. Choosing the landmark drei Sonaten by Brahms for a single sitting was thus, by logical extention, a display of sheer courage and bravado. Brahms would probably have worded the previous sentence differently.
Opening the night with the Second Sonata proved to be a prudent decision, with its warm tunes and lovely textures lending themselves to the elastic energies of the duo. Perhaps a combination of low ambient temperature and nerves had its (barely) audible effect in the first handful of phrase-endings, but as the piece developed the musicians rapidly assumed their artful weaving of harmonies and voices in a seamless rubato. This diehard romantic was in need of a little portamento from the violin, but the rendition was made no less by its honest, almost clean, approach. If anything, that would have reflected the few spots of (relative) calm and positive passion that Brahms may have felt and written, during such rare times in his emotionally tumultous life.
Entering the well-known First Sonata, and anchored by it’s “rain-song” motif, the duo came into their own, interplaying jagged-against-even rhythms, and building the complex lines that Brahms was known for inking. There were some balance issues when the violin exercised too much caution in the pizzicati and “accompaniment” passages against a generously-opened grand, but that would be nitpicking for the acoustic considerations in future venues and performances.
Although the temperature in the recital studio remained frigid, the musical spirit was still warming up, and reached its sweet spot in the Third. Supposedly shaped by symphonic influences and/or intentions, the whole palette of colours, atmosphere, and the kitchen sink was pulled out for this closer. In another display of bravery and brilliance, the duo took the deceptively simple slow movement attaca into the unsettling scherzo-romanze-intermezzo, and once again attaca into a fiery finale that left the audience gasping for more. A wonderful musical and physical feat.
As dessert, without much ado, the pithy Scherzo from the F-A-E was served with as much finesse as depth.
Being the wet blanket that I am, special criticism has been reserved in this paragraph for certain elements in the audience, who may be of want of deserving such a quality performance. Flopping seats, fidgety teenagers, falling objects – these periodically surfaced, spoiling at least the live experience and probably whatever (valuable) recording was being made. Smirks and condescending looks were also shared when members applauded “inappropriately” between movements, or when the only obvious slip was made on the violin on a semi-extension. Some self-relection would be well in order here.
Sober issues aside, when the duo finally appeared for their curtain calls, pianist Lim Yan announced yet another (impromptu) encore, to the perplexity of violinist Shi Mei. The opening refrain of the Second Sonata dissolved into a wizard improvisation of Happy Birthday, and the sporting violinist received both blessings and the concluding phrase with much grace and composure.
In summary: A little safe, but very solid. Looking forward to the near future of other works and composers, and hoping in the distance to hear this again another time, perhaps in another form, and perchance in another life.