Wigmore Mondays – Jennifer Pike & Martin Roscoe: Dani Howard world premiere & Elgar Violin Sonata

Jennifer Pike (violin, above), Martin Roscoe (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 27 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

How refreshing to witness a world premiere brighten up an incredibly dull January day. Dualism, by British composer Dani Howard, is a new piece by violin and piano based on the conflict between ambition and relaxation that we experience on an increasing scale in our everyday lives. With the premise in hand it was easy to spot the ambitious bits – the piano’s energy propelling the music forward initially, the violin swept along – and the much-needed relaxation, where the music paused rather beautifully to take in its surroundings.

Because of these moments Dualism (2:39) was easy to relate to, and its tonal language, with wide open textures in the piano part, brought with it thoughts of the space achieved by the music of Copland and John Adams. Howard created some buoyant harmonies to go with the relatively angular melodic writing but the piece had depth too, an ongoing tension between the power for which it strove and the respite it also needed. The ultimate winner was difficult to call over the nine and a half minutes, Jennifer Pike and Martin Roscoe finding a balance between the elements and each other in an attractive performance.

Elgar’s Violin Sonata followed, an important work in his output as it effectively signals the beginning of his late, shadowy style. Here is where the composer’s work takes on an appreciably darker tinge, though each of the four main works in the period – the Sonata, String Quartet, Piano Quintet and Cello Concerto – each contain moments of light despite all being set in a minor key.

The Sonata is an elusive work, but Pike and Roscoe found its essence and its tunefulness. The first movement (2:39) was the strongest, and you can hear on the broadcast the strength of feeling immediately transmitted through the long sweeps of violin melody. The first theme is passionate, but soon the wisps of violin melody (16:28) indicate the dappled light of autumn.

The second movement (23:38) is a Romance, reaching levels of intensity that speak of sadness and bitter personal experience. It begins with a spirit of unrest, and the light humour forces a short-lived smile before Elgar retreats to the shadows once again. Pike and Roscoe apply a lightness of touch that really suits the dance-like figures that ultimately never get off the ground.

The final movement (31:08) is much broader in its dynamic reach and Pike relishes the return to the sweeping style of the first movement, her broad bow strokes bringing beauty to the melody. Meanwhile Roscoe successfully clarifies the busy piano part, again judging its volume ideally. A fine performance – bittersweet but ultimately resolving positively.

The pair finished with a rustic Theme and Variations from Miklos Rózsa, the composer of such epic film scores as Ben-Hur, Spellbound and A Double Life. Rózsa had a firm grounding in classical forms, writing a Violin Concerto for Jascha Heifetz in 1953 among numerous orchestral pieces. The Hungarian Peasant Song in this concert found him inspired by the folk music of his native country, and more specifically the Mátra region – where he wrote 14 variations on a rustic, outdoor theme. Pike had a lot of fun with these but found the emotional centre too, right from the unaccompanied theme itself (42:34).

The piece progressed through long, powerful lines, bold double stopping or short, twanged pizzicato (plucking). Roscoe’s counterpoint to this was a delight, knowing exactly when to hold back or push on, the pair navigating the very different moods of Rózsa’s variations before bringing them all back together at the end.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Dani Howard Dualism (2019, world premiere) (2:39)
Elgar Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 (1918) (14:28)
Rózsa Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song Op.4 (1929) (42:34)

A well-chosen encore came in the form of Elgar’s Salut d’Amour (54:00), this orchestral favourite working beautifully in reduced form and given the appropriate level of indulgence by Pike.

Further listening & viewing

The Elgar and Rózsa music from this concert can be heard in the recorded versions below, including a classic account from early in Nigel Kennedy’s career, with pianist Peter Pettinger:

Martin Roscoe has recorded the Elgar with Tasmin Little previously, but that version is not available on Spotify. However Jennifer Pike has recorded the orchestral version of the Rózsa Variations, and they form part of a highly rewarding disc devoted to the composer’s orchestral works, including a substantial Cello Concerto:

Jennifer Pike’s most recent album The Polish Violin comes highly recommended, a homage to her Polish roots. Based mainly on the exotic works for violin and piano by Szymanowski, it is brilliantly played and really well programmed, with works by Karłowicz and Wieniawski also included:

Finally a playlist of those four late Elgar works – the Violin Sonata, String Quartet, Piano Quintet and Cello Concerto, in order of publication:

Jennifer Pike and friends – Polish Music Day @ Wigmore Hall

Jennifer Pike (violin), Guy Johnston (cello), Tom Poster (piano)

Wigmore Hall London; Saturday 14 October 2017

Szymanowska Polonaise in F minor / Nocturne in B flat (both c1825)

Knapík Partita (1980)

Górecki Pozegnaie (2009)

Chopin Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8 (1829)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert formed the final instalment of an all-day event – as curated by Jennifer Pike (above) – that surveyed Polish chamber music from the Renaissance to the present, so enabling a much wider out-look on this (not least in the UK) little explored area than is usually the case.

Even so, not many such programmes can have opened with pieces by Maria Szymanowski (née Wołowska), whose death in 1831 at only 42 robbed the musical world of an evidently fine pianist and, as evinced by the elegant Polonaise and wistful Nocturne that were played with real poise and feeling by Tom Poster (below), an able composer and the plausible link between Hummel or Field and Chopin, who was surely familiar with her output. No great rediscovery, maybe, but a welcome opportunity to open-out the context of this period within Polish music.

The major discovery came with Partita by Eugeniusz Knapík. Now in his mid-60s, he seems to be among the younger members of a generation as moved away from post-war modernism towards a more traditional, though by no means reactionary discourse. Lasting for almost 30 minutes, this work unfolds from its imposing ‘Entrée’ – far more substantial and emotionally varied than its title might suggest – via a lyrical ‘Air’ in which the influence of Messiaen (this composer’s one-time teacher) was unmistakable; thence on to a central ‘Mouvement’ whose capricious interplay of violin and piano brought with it the most inventive music of the whole work, before a brief while forceful ‘Récitatif’ (mainly for violin) segued into a second though appreciably more sombre ‘Air’ which saw this piece through to a conclusion of tenuous calm.

An uneven though arresting work, then, which Pike gave with unstinting commitment, ably accompanied (an understatement in this instance) by Poster. Hopefully more of his Knapík’s will be heard in due course (his 1971 Violin Sonata just might be a worthwhile place to start).

After the interval, music by Mikołaj Górecki – his brief though undeniably affecting Farewell is not so far removed from some of the later pieces by his father Henryk; albeit with a degree of emotional detachment in keeping with one to has pursued a distinctively classicist idiom.

The main programme concluded with Chopin’s Piano Trio – not a work that tends to receive overmuch praise, but which proved highly enjoyable when rendered with the insight afforded here. A performance such as made light of the awkward tonal follow-through in the opening Allegro, then found due vivacity in the scherzo with its appealingly lilting trio. The Adagio had pathos without undue sentiment, while the finale made much of its folk-inflected themes and underlying krakowiak rhythm as it headed through to a decisive if peremptory close. All three players, not least Guy Johnston (above), made much of their sometimes restricted though never limited roles; suggesting the mature Chopin (his valedictory Cello Sonata uppermost in mind) likely had a masterpiece to contribute to this medium had it not been for his untimely death.

As an encore, Pike introduced a touching piece by Michał Kleofas Ogiński (1765-18330 – his polonaise for piano Farewell to my Homeland (1794) heard in an idiomatic arrangement for piano trio by her father, rounding-off this enjoyable and enlightening evening in fine style.

Photo credits: Jennifer Pike (Eric Richmond); Tom Poster (Toby Poster)

For more concert information on the Wigmore Hall head to their website