Yesterday’s concert from the Principal Conductor’s series of the Brno Philharmonic presented Yumi Hwang-Williams, concertmaster of the Colorado Symphonic Orchestra, in an intimately conceived programme. Together with the principal conductor of the Brno philharmonic, Dennis Russel Davies, she performed several classical and contemporary works composed for violin and piano. In this, the Brno audience had a chance to see the soloist before she plays tomorrow together with the Brno Philharmonic.
The intimate connection of violin and piano has been a favourite musical form since the classical period, and contemporary composers continue to use it. The evening’s programme began with the Sonata in G Minor by Claude Debussy. It is a work from the composer’s cycle of six sonatas, with which he wished to pay tribute to the French composers Couperin and Rameau and French culture in general. Out of the planned six compositions, the author managed to complete only three before his death, and the premiere of the violin sonata, where he himself played the piano part, was his final public performance. In three movements, fourteen minutes in all, Debussy’s music goes through a series of opposing emotional positions and the composer himself says it reflects what “a sick person composes in times of war”. Soloist Yumi Hwang-Williams turned her back on stronger sentiment. Her performance was in places too moderate, without pronounced expression and lacking “punch”. This absence of emotion is destructive, especially in chamber music, which builds on the marked emotional input of the performer. The dynamic gradation was also much weaker than it could have been. I am not saying that it is necessary to exaggerate the dynamic changes written by the composer, but one has to at least keep to them. It is understandable that the violinist wanted to accentuate the melancholy feel that is characteristic of the piece, but one can find many places in the score which really demand a more dramatic and graduated performance.
In the following Sonata No. 2 in D Minor by the German romantic composer Robert Schumann, the violinist did find space for a more emotional interpretation. The dynamics were also far more colourful, and the soloist managed to reflect the interchanging character of the piece far better. In particular the faster parts in the fourth movement were confidently performed and precisely intoned, which sadly cannot be said about the double-stopping in the third movement, where the octaves were most definitely rather lacking. Even though the dynamic and expressive means were used far better in Schumann’s sonata than in the preceding piece, one cannot shake the feeling that it could have gone much further. However, it was in all a good, yet slightly emotionally muted interpretation.
The final piece of the evening was the Grand Duo by American composer Lou Harrison. A more modern work, it is an insight into the current understanding of chamber music. The wild notes of the violin and piano, the sudden soft lyrical messages, the attacking dissonance and the melancholy sighs – all of these exist in large numbers in Harrison’s piece, and it is great to see that the violinist not only found these in the work, but also emphasised them. It would be a mistake to forget the brilliant performance of Brno Philharmonic principal conductor Dennis Russel Davies, who played the piano parts. Davies was a good rhythmic backbone for the violinist, while at the same time not overshadowing her performance with his own. In the exposed parts, he even managed to play a strong fortissimo with biting clarity. It was in the final piece that Davies got a lot of space, which he used masterfully. However, it is necessary to acknowledge, that from a programming point of view, the final piece was a rather strong departure from what went before. Though I am a fan of contemporary music, this “sandwich” dramaturgy – a modern work together with two classics – maybe isn’t (at least in this context) ideal.
Despite the less than perfect beginning, violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams presented herself to the Brno audience in a good light and lovers of classical music can look forward to tomorrow’s concert. We can expect that there she will show all of her performing skills.
CLAUDE DEBUSSY Sonata for Violin
ROBERT SCHUMANN Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, op. 121
LOU HARRISON Grand Duo for Violin and Piano
Yumi Hwang-Williams violin
Dennis Russell Davies piano
26 March 2019, Besední dům