This concert from violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien provided everything that one might expect from this outstanding long-term partnership, and perhaps a little more besides. The key ingredient in ensuring that the evening felt truly special was the programming, which pitted four highly disparate pieces against each other. This enabled the performers to show off their flexibility in the way in which they adjusted their styles to suit each, but also allowed them still to apply their unique skills to every note.
Part of the brilliance of the pair’s playing stems from their ability to unite seeming contradictions, so that, for example, Ibragimova’s sound may teem with exuberance, even as she proves to be a master of understatement, while her bowing can feel languid and free, even as each stroke is precisely measured.
Such qualities came to the fore in the performance of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 12 No. 3 (1797-98), in which Ibragimova and Tiberghien provided a forward momentum to the entire piece, while still ensuring that it did not feel so unrelentingly driven that certain moments could not almost be languished in still. Particularly noteworthy was Ibragimova’s bowing, where we could witness, for example, the hard downward stroke contrasted with the lighter upwards one, or the most intricate and soulful gliding across the string. The Adagio con molta espressione proved highly expressive as it rendered the evolving melody, but even more impressive perhaps was the way in which the Rondo finale, described in the programme as ‘less promising’ due to its four-square theme, was handed its own sense of beauty by virtue of the sheer skill in the playing.
Although the premiere only occurred in 1922 following extensive revisions, Janáček originally wrote his Violin Sonata in 1914, with the dramatic piano tremolos in the finale representing the Russian troops entering Hungary that year. In the opening Con moto Tiberghien’s playing proved particularly astute at rendering the rolling or rhapsodic piano lines, while in the following Ballada Ibragimova brought a warmth to a sound that nonetheless did not seem facile because it also carried a more intriguing edge. In the third movement the pair brought a haunting quality to both the folk-like melody and the slower passage, with Ibragimova’s bow strokes feeling measured out to perfection, while at times the final movement seemed positively mechanistic.
Ibragimova is renowned for using little vibrato, although as the pieces over the evening revealed this does not mean she uses none. Overall, it would seem that the amount she applies at each point is just a notch or two down on what many other violinists might consider, but one piece that positively requires none is John Cage’s Six Melodies for violin and keyboard (1950). With all six feeling generally subdued, with every pitch being played on the same string of the violin when it occurs and the piano part consisting largely of fourths and fifths, Cage’s intentions seem very clear. As a result, one senses that there is little scope for players to put their personal interpretation on the piece, as they either grasp Cage’s vision and fulfil it or they do not. This pair, however, certainly did, meaning it was hard to picture ever hearing a more definitive performance of the work.
The final piece in the main programme was Schumann’s Violin Sonata in D minor, Op. 121 (1851). In the first movement the sound grew in warmth in the second subject, while in the ‘agitated’ coda the drama was rendered as the tone was kept quite sturdy. The driving second movement combined a sweetness of sound with a strong sense of purpose, the third featured some beautifully ‘lyrical’ pizzicato, while the finale, with its tumultuous sonata form, saw great lyricism in the second subject and immense excitement at the conclusion.