Serious interest in two newcomers to the Boston scene was evident Wednesday , as an audience braving extraordinary cold filled almost all seats at Longy’s Pickman Hall. Performing in the Debut Series, mounted this season for the first time by Boston’s Celebrity Series, Vilde Frang, a violinist from Norway, and Michail Lifits, a pianist from Uzbekistan, appeared unfazed by the weather, perhaps reflecting their roots. But the heat they generated was not enough to seize the audience, and many left disappointed.
Frang, a violinist in her early 20s, has performed with distinguished players and conductors and has well-received recordings to her credit. While she has apparently stayed away from the competition circuit, Lifits, in addition to solo recitals and performances with orchestra, has won several competitions and has recorded on prominent labels. The duo has appeared together in many venues, and on this occasion they played works by Mozart, Fauré, Brahms and Prokofiev.
First came Mozart’s Sonata in F-major K 377. In a concentrated span Mozart wrote quite a few sonatas for piano and violin, listing the piano first. Considering his oeuvre overall, they range from slight, even workmanlike examples, to several frequently performed treasures (K 378 and K 454, both in B-flat major, are perhaps the leading examples). K 377 ranks perhaps toward the middle. Starting with a lively allegro, it moves on to a theme and variations marked andante, and ends with a short, slight movement marked Tempo di Minuetto. The performance started with a flurry and lots of energy, but the piano immediately overwhelmed the violin, and unfortunately this pattern predominated through far too much of the evening. While Frang exhibited a light, delicate sound, Lifits chose an aggressive, crisp approach, without many gradations between loud and soft. The contrast ended up not serving Mozart well, particularly in the opening movement. The theme and variations were more successful as the players took turns taking the lead, and the Menuetto, played more slowly than usual, had some elegant moments. But overall, the appetizer failed to enchant.
Gabriel Fauré composed his Sonata for Violin and Piano in A, Op 13 in 1875-6. An early work reflecting his classical roots, it is true to the four movement sonata form, though it is also a bon-bon. Brilliant, quicksilver, lyrical, and flighty, it calls for a light touch, virtuosic élan, and a sense of humor. Unfortunately, these elements were scarce, and the piece proved the low spot of the evening. Preparing for the violin’s entrance, the very first notes in the piano should quietly murmur as the melody is introduced, but on this occasion the beginning was almost bombastic. And so it continued, with those hearing it for the first time unlikely to connect this music to its French roots. Frang worked to be heard, and again the slow movement was kinder in that respect, but the gossamer quality of the famed scherzo eluded both players. They played it so quickly that there was only a hint of the pinpoint accents that lend it humor and shape (listen to the Heifetz/Bay recording. It’s no faster, indeed it may be slower, but you smile throughout). And the last movement should pulsate, ripple and recede. It just didn’t happen.
Johannes Brahms enjoyed creating dances drawn from the Hungarian idiom, composing 21 for piano-four hands. Starting with some of his contemporaries, including his friend, Joachim, many have adapted them for different combinations of instruments. The duo presented three examples, nos. 11, 17 and 2. The last two are played quite often, the first one, arranged by Joachim, was new to me. That one came off well. It is a test of the fiddler’s intonation through almost constant double stops which Frang passed with colors flying, unfurling an elegant and captivating line. But the other two, including a famed transcription by Kreisler, call for in your face virtuosity combined with a melodic thrust, and they fell victim again to the exuberance of the pianist coupled with a violinist who could not quite keep up.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 94b Sonata for Flute or Violin and piano in D Major, a favorite of both players and listeners, was written originally for the flute in 1943; it certainly provided the high spot of the evening. David Oistrakh gave the first performance of the violin version in 1944, and it quickly thereafter entered the repertoire. It’s a sunny piece, in striking contrast to the composer’s extraordinarily dark f-minor sonata (Op 80), and it also follows the classic sonata form, although the brilliant Scherzo precedes the slow movement. Here the players seemed to have more fun. The Russian idiom fits Lifits’s fingers well. He showed much more variation in color, and there was more ebb and flow. Frang proved again that a lot of notes in a hurry pose few problems for her, and there were some memorable moments when using hardly any vibrato she created a long quiet line with compelling simplicity.
But for many reasons the evening was disappointing, contrasting starkly with the expectations surrounding the highly promoted performers. The hall may be unkind to a violin/piano recital. That piano may be hard to tame in a lively room, or the balance determined in practice beforehand changed when the room filled with people. The violin, a copy of a Stradivari made by Vuillaume in the 19th century, may have been out of sorts from wandering around Boston in the cold. Or, perhaps most likely, the duo needs to mature and work hard at overcoming both technical and musical barriers. For the violinist, two technical handicaps stood out: Frang has trouble singing a long line because she is in the habit of starting a sustained note without vibrato and then adding it half way along, so-called “off-on” vibrato that can be used to good effect on occasion, but should never predominates in the work of a great artist. Her bow also tends to drift away from the bridge, and she loses sound. And that’s a particular problem when her partner, who can play quietly at times, needs to do so more often.
A final note: it happens that Frang is a tall young violinist who played the Fauré sonata on a Vuillaume violin. For those in the audience who enjoy comparing things, Hillary Hahn, a tall young violinist will also play the Fauré, probably on a Vuillaume, in a Celebrity Series concert at Jordan Hall on March 1st. Although the pianist, piano, and hall will be different, that performance should be interesting!