Wigmore Mondays – Vilde Frang & Aleksandar Madžar play Bartók and Schubert

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Vilde Frang (left, violin), Aleksandar Madžar (right, piano)

Bartók Violin Sonata no.1 (1921) (33 minutes)

Schubert Fantasy in C major D934 (1827) (21 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 16 November

Arcana’s commentary

It is easy to see why Vilde Frang is held in such high regard. This contrasting program of Bartók and Schubert showed a steely side to her playing in the former, but also a purity of tone that could be easily appreciated throughout.

These qualities served her well in a powerful rendition of Bartók’s massive Violin Sonata no.1, but she could not have made this impact without Aleksandar Madžar’s superb piano playing, notable for its clarity and rhythmic precision.

Bartók and rhythm are inseparable, and the hold that folk music has on his compositions was all too clear in the syncopations and cross rhythms that Frang and Madžar exploited here. The angular tunes of the first movement (first heard at 2:07) had an assertive mood, brilliantly played.

Richard Bratby’s excellent program note reminded us how modern the music must have sounded in 1922, when Bartók himself played piano with violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, who became an important creative muse. Frang and Madžar powered through the first movement, making light of its technical difficulties, but in the second movement time stood still. Frang’s sweet but thoughtful tune, initially heard alone (from 14:26), was complemented by a solemn and mysterious chorale from Madžar (16:00), the two forces gradually aligning but still lost in a distant world.

The finale arrived with a flourish (25:15), both performers tackling it with some relish and achieving a remarkable unity of ensemble at the end (from 32:30), finishing with a terrifically spicy, bluesy chord.

Schubert’s Fantasy in C major can seem like a long piece in the wrong hands, but here it came alive. Completed in the last year of his life, it is conceived in a single span of four distinct sections, and is a very original piece of writing. Balance between the violin and piano is key, and this was spot on for the moving opening statement, where Madžar had a lot of work to do but was always responsive to Frang’s soft intonation (from 37:09)

A bracing Allegretto section (from 40:23) led to the centrepiece, a Theme & Variations (45:44) The origin of the theme, a Schubert song, was abundantly clear in this lyrical performance, while there was some sparkling playing from Madžar as the variations took hold (try 48:57) This flair and musicality continued to the return of the soft first movement theme, now shaping up in the finale (52:36), an emotional reunion in these hands before a convincing finish (from 57:40).

This was a superb concert, affirming Vilde Frang as one of the best violinists of her generation on the concert circuit, but also illustrating just what a fine pianist Aleksandar Madžar is too. Hear this if you can!

Further listening

You can hear more of Vilde Frang in an early album recorded for Warner Classics with Michail Lifits. Here she brings a sunny tone to violin sonatas by Grieg (no.1) and Richard Strauss, full of youthful exuberance, while there is more Bartók in the form of his Sonata for solo violin, a tour de force:

by Ben Hogwood

Vilde Frang, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Peter Oundjian – Viennese classics in Dundee

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Ben Hogwood visits Dundee’s magnificent Caird Hall for an trio of Viennese works given by violinist Vilde Frang, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and principal conductor Peter Oundjian
Caird Hall, Dundee, Thursday 12 November

Webern Langsamer Satz (1905), arr for string orchestra by Gerard Schwarz

Brahms Violin Concerto (1878)

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C, ‘Jupiter’ (1788)

What a magnificent setting for a concert. Dundee’s Caird Hall will be well known as an attraction by the locals but it bears repeating that the venue is an excellent acoustic for classical music, as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conductor Peter Oundjian observed in his brief talk to the audience before the concert.

The high ceiling was perfect for the burnished ardour of Webern’s Langsamer Satz, written while the composer was still in a tonal way of thinking and in thrall to his hero Mahler. Although normally heard through the intimate medium of the string quartet, this arrangement, made by the conductor Gerard Schwarz for string orchestra, worked extremely well, and the RSNO strings made a beautiful and clean sound that left us in no doubt as to the composer’s feelings towards his cousin – who was later to become his wife.

The Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang then joined the enhanced orchestra for another Viennese piece, Brahms’s Violin Concerto­ – and in the process she built on a relationship already established with the erte concerto last year. Frang is not a player prone to exaggerated gestures or one-upmanship on the orchestra and this was the ideal approach for the Brahms, where the two forces work together and where the orchestra often have the better tunes. Oboist Adrian Wilson, acknowledged by Frang at the end, was superb in his slow movement solo, and while this was perhaps a more ‘classical’ reading looking back towards Schubert, Frang took the difficult and extended solo passages, particularly the cadenzas, by the scruff of the neck and refused to let them go.

Completing the Viennese trio was Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, his last – with Oundjian sensibly reducing the forces in the name of clarity. This was an extremely fine performance where the rapport between the RSNO and their conductor was abundantly clear, and where he ensured that Mozart’s deceptively simple themes were beautifully communicated and developed. A graceful minuet was notable for the floated violin delivery, though in the trio the minor key harmonies sowed the seeds of disquiet.

These were emphatically blown away by the finale, one of Mozart’s greatest achievements as a composer in his successful dovetailing of all five themes in a brilliantly worked fugue. Oundjian took this at a daringly fast tempo but we never lost sight of the tunes, the orchestra working incredibly hard to keep their lines clear and crisp. The enjoyment of all – players and audience – was clear, for this was music to banish even the squalliest of November nights.