This Sunday morning coffee concert at Wigmore Hall contained four works, each written in the five year span between 1922 and 1927. At the recital’s centre stood George Enescu, who both personally and musically provided the link between the worlds of Ernst von Dohnányi and Maurice Ravel. Thus, in the space of an hour, Phillipe Graffin and Claire Désert took the listener on a journey from the rather old world folk-inspired timbres of Hungary and Romania to the distinctly modern world of Gallic chic, that mixed blues and jazz influences with a more classically orientated mindset.
Dohnányi’s Ruralia Hungarica, dating from 1924, was written very much in the parlando rubato manner. Graffin explored the range of his instrument with expressive feeling, as he brought out the deep sighs, some wilful edgy stammerings and more connected thoughts of the single movement with ease. The accompaniment however maintained an even mezzo-forte throughout and in this there was some identification with the more artfully constructed upper range writing of the violin. As a whole the piece served as a useful prelude for listeners new to Enescu’s third violin sonata to the complexities of Enescu’s sound world.
From my previous experience of hearing Graffin play Enescu (Impressions d’Enfance rather than the third violin sonata), his approach has been to favour the spirit rather than the absolute letter of the score. With the sonata, dating from 1926, his approach seems not yet to have settled so that the work’s various facets showed real cohesion. The first movement showed him either to be almost too subtle of tone at times or too taken with a driven steely timbre. Désert proved, as ever, characterful in her playing.
The middle movement took the violin’s part to an edgy extreme, where harmonics approximated the sound Enescu’s carefully notated fingerings intended. At the movement’s centre is a violent change of emotions recalling a storm in a rural village and for Graffin brought out both intended and unintended links to sections of Enescu’s Impressions d’Enfance. The third movement continued in a rather over-anxious manner: by this stage Graffin’s tone was distinctly raspy, but the duo were able to rise to the passionate climax of the work’s conclusion. Overall though, despite Désert taking note of Enescu’s naming it a sonata for piano and violin – both instruments in equality – I remain to be convinced that they yet have the full measure of Enescu’s musical conception, but with more time progress might yet be made towards a fine interpretation.
Graffin seemed at once more relaxed when on native ground, as it were, with Maurice Ravel’s 1922 Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré. Fauré was the teacher of Ravel and Enescu – they were classmates at the Paris Conservatoire, and both in turn paid a musical tribute to their master. Graffin caught with ease the air of Gallic amiability that infuses Ravel’s writing, with the simplicity of the violin’s opening line discretely stated, before developing more exotic wholly Ravellian textures in both parts.
In 1937, with the ink still wet on the manuscript paper containing his violin sonata, Ravel dashed to Enescu’s Paris apartment for a play-through. Enescu obliged with the solo line as Ravel accompanied, closing the autograph after a single reading to repeat the work from memory. In this performance though, Graffin’s head remained buried in the score. That notwithstanding, an elegant lightness imbued the opening movement alongside some moments of seeming nervousness. The bluesy second movement captured the intended mood wonderfully, before the closing two movements linked together to form a stream of musical thought as compelling in its forceful argument as in its playing from a duo at last giving of their absolute best.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.