Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Viktoria Mullova @ Royal Festival Hall, London

2 December 2006

Viktoria Mullova‘s roaring technique must place her as one of the most exciting living violinists.

Her sensitive intelligence allows her to find a wide range of colours and emotions.

In Presto passages, the vicious attack on her Stradivarius can be astonishing, with bow dancing on and bouncing off string at such a rate that collapse seems imminent.

Her recent CD release with Katia Labeque was an absolute must, and this concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Saturday evening boasted almost exactly the same programme.

An interesting comparison was offered between studio and live performance: often minor details varied (for example, in the Serenata from Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, there seemed to be less portamento used) but generally this was very similar.

It took about ten minutes for the duo to judge the acoustic correctly in the Suite Italienne, the opening statement of the first movement tailed off too quickly and Labeque’s left hand frequently threatened to drown out the violin’s line but this soon improved, and the performance overall was sensitive, alert and immensely enjoyable. Dance rhythms were crisp, lines were shaped to perfection and the perfect contrast was found between movements. And the same could be said about either Schubert’s Fantasia in C Major or Ravel’s Violin Sonata.

However, that this was a live performance meant that nothing went as smoothly as on the CD. Mullova’s white hot virtuosity may produce astoundingly exciting passages, but her technique is dangerous. In the Schubert Fantasia, her vibrato was excellent in the long, lyrical melodies, but she once-too-often used it on the first note of a phrase, resulting in uncertain pitch and a sometimes ugly wobble. More problematically, tone was often lost and the great climaxes of both the Schubert and the Ravel were of the one note variety, Mullova finding no shape and consequently no sense of culmination.

Katia Labeque’s performance was similarly mixed. For the most part, she was excellent, creating shimmering spheres in the first movement of the Schubert; shaping the angular, percussive fragments of the Ravel with obvious glee over the work’s unashamedly catchy jazz rhythms. However, tempi could be uncertain (movement two of the Schubert) and there was a tendency for her to speed up for the more complex passages, consequently smothering them. I was also not convinced that her frequently flailing arms and ecstatic grimaces were completely necessary, though they did create a certain frisson in the hall.

The one new item on the programme (in that it was not on the CD) was Bartk’s Hungarian Folk Tunes, which was shaped with an awareness of the work’s poise between moods and styles. Mullova’s colouring in the first movement was exemplary and the rustic tunes maintained the highest precision while never seeming airbrushed.

In conclusion, this was high quality chamber music, but the obvious pitfalls of a live performance perhaps render the CD a better summation of the talents of Mullova / Labeque.

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