Wigmore Mondays: Tai Murray & Silke Avenhaus play Grieg, Philip Glass & Saint-Saëns

Tai Murray (violin, above); Silke Avenhaus (piano, below)

Grieg Violin Sonata no.2 in G major Op.13 (1867)
Glass Pendulum (2010)
Saint-Saëns Violin Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.75 (1885)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 November 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was an imaginative and invigorating recital from two instrumentalists at the very top of their game. It also brought forward two of the lesser lights in the violin and piano repertoire, giving exposure to composers for whom melody came naturally.

Edvard Grieg’s three sonatas for violin and piano are consistently rewarding. Three weeks previously at the Wigmore Hall we heard Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova in the Violin Sonata no.3; now Murray and Avenhaus gave a passionate performance of its predecessor.

Of a largely sunny disposition, the Violin Sonata no.2 in G major is one of the first works to introduce home-grown folksong into the Norwegian composer’s output. Tai Murray seized the opportunity for drama with an assertive introduction, countering Silke Avenhaus’s thoughtful opening in the minor key (1:49). From 3:17 they moved to the first movement proper, enjoying the attractive, dance-like melodies in a bright exchange, though this was countered by a more reflective, minor-key theme (heard again at 8:19).

Grieg used this key for the slow movement, which began in dreamy, reflective mood (11:09). Soon however the violin was soaring higher and faster, before subsiding to a beautiful, airy second theme, back in the major key (12:47). The third movement once again suggested the outdoors with the piano drone (16:55) and another folksy melody, the violin stepping in exuberantly – and another dreamy episode from 19:02. After a recapitulation of the drone material at 20:18 Murray and Avenhaus led us to a grand coda, a passionate finish in a similar vein to the soon to be published Piano Concerto.

Philip Glass’s Pendulum, originally written for piano trio, appeared here in a duo version sanctioned by the composer. Even when Glass is at his most delicate, great demands are placed on the performers, especially when set the kind of athletic arpeggio figures Murray and Avenhaus had here (from 24:30). They responded with an energetic performance but also took great care with the subtleties of Glass’s writing at the start of the piece, with a steady tread on the lower notes of the piano. The nervous energy was never far from the surface, growing as the oscillations became ever wider, leading to a sweeping finish at 31:47.

The mystery that Saint-SaënsViolin Sonata no.1 is not more often performed is solved by its fiendishly difficult but utterly exhilarating finale. Until then, the work – completed in 1885 – had already made a strong impact, thanks to the composer’s clever grouping of the four movements into pairs of two, and the irregular but strangely effective phrasing of the melodies.

From the start of the first movement (34:02) Murray and Avenhaus set a tense, nervy atmosphere, the violin and piano shadowboxing each other. The second theme (35:37) was equally nervy, despite the flowing piano’s suggestions of the Organ symphony. The recapitulation in this dramatic movement reached a climax at 39:55 with some concerto-esque playing from the piano before the flowing theme returned, Saint-Saëns moving us seamlessly into the second movement (from 43:25)

This respite, a rather beautiful reverie, was broken by the third movement Scherzo (from 48:00), a throwback to the composer’s Danse macabre, with irregular phrases and the instruments mirroring each other again. There was a flowing trio section (from 49:58) but before long we were back to the Scherzo (50:58). Another seamless transition set up the finale (from 52:05), scampering out of the blocks with some remarkable playing from both players, responding to the technical demands with apparent ease and bringing back the second theme from the first movement in a beautiful passage of playing from 56:08. Then the music built for the final time, surging into the major key where a cascade of bells rang out from the piano (57:03), before the emphatic finish.

A terrific concert, this, with no need for an encore. At its best Saint-Saëns’ music can be breathtaking, and this was one such wholly enjoyable occasion!

Further listening

Tai Murray has yet to record any of the music played in this concert, but the playlist below contains some of the best available versions:

If you particularly enjoyed the Grieg, I wholeheartedly recommend a disc bringing together all three of the composer’s sonatas for violin and piano, played by Augustin Dumay and Maria-João Pires:

It remains a mystery as to why the Saint-Saëns sonatas are not performed more often. If you listen to the collection below you will find some persuasive accounts of the Second Violin Sonata, the Cello Sonatas and works for clarinet, oboe and bassoon: