Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Fischer/Helmchen @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

29 November 2010

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Queen Elizabeth Hall (Photo: Morley von Sternberg)

I’d wager that if a survey were carried out of the composers most frequently performed by violinists, Robert Schumann would be far from the top so a recital of his three sonatas for the instrument, performed by one of the leading performers of today, was an enticing prospect.

Julia , who is a highly skilled pianist as well as one of the leading performers of today on the violin, notes that Schumann’s writing for the Fischer violin isn’t always as fluent or immediately rewarding for the player as with other composers, perhaps because of his overwhelming tendency to think, and compose, pianistically.

Not that Fischer’s performance suggested any difficulties with the works she and musical partner Martin Helmchen have clearly explored the music and the man in depth, and the close bond between them was evident throughout. Indeed, sometimes it all seemed just a little too easy after all, these sonatas are the products of the troubled last few years of Schumann’s life before he was committed to an asylum, and I felt that the brooding, simmering perpetuum mobile of the finale to the first sonata, so reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s fairy music, simply passed by almost as a technical exercise for Fischer and Helmchen. (Also, I’ve always found Fischer’s rather cool, ice-maiden persona somewhat off-putting, despite the thrill that her playing and recordings bring again, her presentation of these fruits of a tortured soul seemed painlessly easy and undemanding.)

That seemed part of a bigger problem, although not on the part of the performers: namely, that Schumann’s magic is most obvious in the inner movements of these works (perhaps nowhere more movingly than in the original Intermezzo of the third sonata, which was performed as an encore by Fischer and Helmchen), but then his final movements dont quite hit the spot. As mentioned above, the finale of the first sonata, while captivating in its harmonies and modulations, doesnt quite seem echt Schumann certainly not late Schumann and that of the composite third sonata, while a tour de force for the Fischer-Helmchen partnership, gave a rather flat ending to the first half of the recital.

But the more homogenous, integrated second sonata, which formed the second half of the concert, brought much more satisfaction. The key (D minor, in contrast to the A minor of the two other sonatas) brings out, in a good way, the darker side of the composer, and the performers responded with more forthright, heartfelt playing. From Fischers bold double-stopping of the melodic theme in the first movement to the wispy, ghosted pizzicati of the second movement, this was more like the haunted Schumann of the late songs touching, troubled, tender, but always open and laid bare for all to witness.

Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk

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