VIAF 2015

A high-calibre oboe and pianoforte recital

Marika Lombardi and Nathalie Dang came over from Paris to dazzle and receptive audience with their virtuosity and intelligence in a unique recital on the oboe and pianoforte.

On Thursday 18th June, it was the turn of yet another chamber ensemble, another rare one for the Maltese islands in that it saw the participation of oboist Marika Lombardi (originally from Italy but residing and working in Paris) and French pianist Nathalie Dang. Choosing to perform a programme of works specifically written for the oboe, the concert was a showcase of professionalism and mastery.

Starting with a beautiful work by Vivaldi, namely, his Sonata in C Minor, both performers immediately showed their mettle in their intelligent understanding of the work. Vivaldi is ever-fresh and while he does not possess the dense textures of Bach, his music is fleet-footed and shimmers with crystalline clarity. There was sensuous charm in the dialogic interchange between the two instruments in the faster movements, namely the second and the fourth.  Sonority then was the guiding spirit in the lovely Adagio and the stately Andante. What characterized this work is Vivaldi’s particular brand of freshness in the texture of his lines, the beauty of the singing voice and the intricate but transparent contrapuntal networks which differ from the more dense and complex structures of Bach.

There is something sublime in Schumann that one does not really come by in any other composer with the possible exception of moments in Bach and Wagner. This sublimity was sensed and experienced in the next work performed by the Duo, namely, Schumann’s Three Romances op. 94. The first piece, marked Nicht schnell (Not quickly), presented a lovely theme on the oboe, supported by imaginative accompaniment on pianoforte. The mood was tranquil throughout. This description might also apply to the second piece, marked Einfach, innig (Simply, ardently), but for a somewhat tense middle section. All three pieces came across as very similar in the character of their main themes: each, in fact, was bursting with song and might have served the voice just as well as the oboe. The third piece was the liveliest of the trio. Again marked Nicht schnell, it was also the most rugged and colourful-sounding one in its main theme. There was more than a hint of Brahms here, a composer who was just beginning to make his mark. The middle section was simply lovely, similar in character to the opening melodies of the first two pieces. The piano accompaniment was deftly wrought throughout, never overwhelming the oboe, yet always making its supportive presence felt. Given that this work, albeit Romantic, is not tinged with truly virtuosic moments, yet, such is the sublime level of the texture that they achieved a very high level of art.

Then came three Sonatas in quick succession. A Sonata is always a formidable work, one that exerts tremendous pressure and demands serious responsibility from the performers. C. Saint-Saëns’ Sonate in D Major op. 166, is a most demanding work, musically and technically, and both Marika and Nathalie rose to the occasion with consummate mastery. The movements of the Sonata are not ordered according to the traditional fast-slow-fast sonata model. What Saint-Saëns does is increase the tempo considerably with each successive movement. The first movement is an Andantino and the texture of its musical lines was transmitted as being of a pastoral kind. Structured in ternary form, the opening theme of the Oboe solo was an echo of the Westminster chime. The core of the second movement is a Romance, marked Allegretto. It is preceded by an Introduction and rounded off with an Epilogue. What struck the listener as interesting is that both the outer sections of this movement are marked ad libitum, giving space to the performer to indulge in poetic licence, as it were, in the same way that one does with a cadenza. The third and final movement is marked Molto allegro. This is a short and brilliant piece, with passages of great difficulty and dazzling virtuosity. The spontaneous and ringing applause at the end of the piece was a merited reaction on the part of the audience!

Poulenc’s Sonata of 1961 was composed inmemory of Sergey Prokofiev. Given the first movement’s title Elegie, the performers hit the right note as a song in praise for the dead, coming across as extremely calm and peaceful. The oboe began with a four-note phrase starting on its high D, from which both instruments derived and unraveled a winding, lyrical theme. The pianoforte introduced a rising theme just as lyrical, before a third theme, in a double-dotted, tripping rhythm, was announced. This provoked an unexpectedly thunderous outburst before the pastoral material of the opening returned. The mercurial emotional turn of the first movement came back in the second-movement, a Scherzo, albeit reversed. Here, an A section full of pointed, racing rhythms, contrasted briefly with smoother phrases, at the behest of a few pianoforte chords for a far slower B section with a rhapsodic theme introduced and mostly developed by the pianoforte. The third movement, titled Deploration and marked Très calme, is the most obviously funerary of the three.  After a pianoforte introduction, the oboe took a lamenting, chorale-like theme over a stolid pianoforte pulse. The pulse quickened and the tripping rhythm from the first movement made a re-appearance, but the brief moments of solace in the music always felt unstable and fleeting, an impression confirmed by a bleak ending with distant, ghostly pianoforte chords supporting inward lyrical imprecations from the oboe. The oboe’s final sustained note, with dissonant splashes by the pianoforte underneath, seemed to hang in the air for long after its sound dies. It seemed that the irony with which Poulenc is so intimately associated, and which is so exquisitely fin-de-siècle French in colour and texture, is what remains after all else is gone. This was a wonderfully-executed work, with Marika in full control of the tone and dynamic range of the instrument and Nathalie proving a masterful accompanist of no mean measure.

The final work on the programme was Rubbra’s Sonata in C Minor op. 100. The first subject of the first movement was announced immediately by the oboe, emphasizing semitones. The second subject surfaced much later in D, with a rocking minor third. The cadential figure which ended the exposition in D turns out to have the means to support virtually the entire development, climaxing as far away as Db Major before the recapitulation which, this time, was first sounded by the pianoforte. The second movement, an Elegy, took off where the cadential figure stopped earlier with a similar rising filled-in minor third. The opening phrase, passed from oboe to pianoforte and back, was replete with repeated notes and the exchange between both performers was full of charm and piquancy. The pace was gentle and measured,  and so was the climax in the central section, which preceded a varied return to the opening theme in a richer harmonic setting. The final movement, a Presto, suggested an oriental, exotic melody which the oboe fully exploited with a marvellously sensuous and evocative tone. This tune was transposed to a Phrygian mode and gently slung over a harp texture on the pianoforte. The opening oboe theme was the A section of a rondo in A-B-A-C-A pattern, but afterwards, this tune was heard on the pianoforte, with more discursive themes dominating the episodes. All ideas were unified with a breathless pace.

This was a concert that, once again, measured up to the high standards that our audiences are expecting. Reaching high standards is not easy, maintaining and sustaining them are not easier, but, together with careful planning, together with the high-profile contacts that Joseph Vella, our Artistic Director, forges through his professional work all over Europe, the U.S.A. and beyond, resulting in getting extraordinary performers every year, the process of attaining and keep high levels becomes possible! Thank you!