It was an intense and exhilarating weekend, with one stunning concert after another. On Monday 25 June, virtuoso violinist Andrea Gajic, accompanied by the equally talented Sinae Lee at the piano, gave a captivating recital of works by Beethoven, Grieg, and Ravel.
Andrea Gajic is no newcomer to the Victoria International Arts Festival; indeed, patrons remember her dazzling performances of the Brahms and the Sibelius Violin Concertos only a couple of years ago. This time, she was invited to give a recital with pianoforte and once again she proved what a world-class performer she is, if proof were needed at all. Starting her recital with Beethoven’s Sonata no. 10 in G Major op. 96 (‘The Cockcrow’), Andrea displayed her authority and assertiveness in no uncertain terms; yet, she remained controlled and almost understated and her partnership with pianist Sinae Lee attests to the two musicians’ respect for each other and their undoubted easeful collaboration which is the result of the work of many years.
The op. 96 Sonata features none of the tempestuousness of the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, and Sydney Finkelstein has written that “the mood [of op. 96] is one of gentle lyricism, with but glimpses of the profound depths of experience and conquest of pain that had made possible the achievement of this serenity”. The work provides an unexpected close to Beethoven’s so-called ‘middle’ period.
From the outset of the first movement it is clear that the symphonic energy of the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata is nowhere to be found. Beethoven forgoes the slow introduction and the tempo Presto intensity, creating a more contemplative atmosphere. However, the listener could still find an abundance of material, with numerous thematic elements in the exposition, in the middle of which a hint of B flat major anticipates the ‘flat key’ passages in the recapitulation and the E flat major key of the second movement. The falling, sighing segment of the second closing theme dominated the development section in the most beautiful manner, one which subtly trilled its way into the recapitulation. As in the first movement of the op. 47 Sonata, developmental treatment of the first theme occurred only in the extended coda.
The hymn-like harmonic movement of the opening theme created a sense of repose in the second movement. Marked Adagio espressivo, the sonata-form structure lacks a development section, a typical attribute of slow-movement sonata form. Beethoven indicates there be no break between the Adagio and the ensuing Scherzo. He casts the Scherzo in G minor, followed by a Trio in E flat major. The Scherzo section, with its detached melody and accompaniment, ended in such a way that the transition to G major in the coda was almost imperceptible. The only surprise is that the movement ended in the major, not the minor. Pastoral qualities permeate the Finale – Poco allegretto, a set of variations on a simple, eight-measure theme. These variations proceeded without interruption, at one point changing from 2/4 to 6/8 meter for a slow lyrical segment that pushes toward E flat major and a literal statement of the theme before moving on to the next variation. A G minor variation that resembled the first theme of the first movement preceded a return to the finale theme on the tonic key. Andrea and Sinae chose to close with a witty, Adagio-Presto coda.
Next came Grieg’s Sonata no. 3 in C Minor op. 45. This Norwegian composer is irrepressibly romantic in temperament, a mood that Andrea Gajic takes to like fish to water. The opening movement, marked Allegretto molto ed appassionato offered a tense first-subject motif, with the second group altogether more relaxed and consoling in mood. The darkly sombre development section is based entirely upon the first theme, which also makes a further appearance after the recapitulation just prior to the very dramatic coda. There followed a slow movement, an Allegretto espressivo alla Romanza, in the serene tonality of E major. Interestingly, piano and violin assumed quite independent roles here; although each could be heard in the noble main theme, there was little sense of dialogue or exchange between the two. Despite this, no sense of imbalance or friction could be sensed. It seemed as if both were forging ahead with their own argument, each respecting the other’s, yet never quite in conformity. This was an extraordinary achievement, one indicated by the score, needless to say, yet so difficult to carry out without either of the performers taking the lead, as it were. The individuality of the two instruments was heightened to a surprising extent here, and even in the final section the two never fully reconciled. The finale, an Allegro animato has a sonata structure, ABAB-Coda, without a development section, the lack of which was compensated for in a series of daring modulations that involved digressions into A flat major and F major. In the words of Rune J. Andersen, the piece contains “universal and national elements fused into something deeply personal and specifically Griegian,” something that both performers grasped and transmitted to the audience.
Last on the programme came Ravel’s famous Tzigane, a piece of dazzling bravura which never overshadows moments of sublimity. Andrea Gajic was in her true element — hers is a big, lush tone so eminently suitable for virtuosic pieces such as this one. No technical difficulty is insurmountable for her, she dealt with it with authority and respect. Tzigane opened with an extended solo for the violin (Lento, quasi cadenza), buried in the middle of which is a theme characterised by a dotted-rhythm, falling-fifth figure which served as the melodic meat for much of the work. This long extended first part gave full scope and range to the violinist to demonstrate her complete and utter command of the violin. Passionate, plaintive, and commanding, her full-bodied tone fitted this piece to a tee, keeping the captivated audience on the edge of their seats. The piano entered with its own chromatic mini-cadenza as the soloist’s fiery technical gestures and robust double stops subsided into flickering double tremolos and a pair of unaccompanied trills ushered in the main body of the piece. The remainder of Tzigane was worked out in a clearly sectional manner. After a restatement of the falling-fifth idea by the violin, the piano produced its own little theme, a staccato tune that made thorough use of the typically ‘gypsy’ interval of an augmented second. Some time later, a bombastic Grandioso broke in. After a brief pause, the violin resumed in sixteenth note perpetual motion, coloured by such features as Paganini-like left-hand pizzicato. The musical line accelerated and decelerated time and again until it finally achieved unstoppable momentum, one that was literally breath-taking. The work came to an emphatic end with three incisive chords marked pizzicato, but played with the bow.
The audience literally leapt to its feet at the end and the long resounding applause was an eloquent testimony to the wonderful ability of this very talented violinist.
The following, day, Djordje Gajic, Andrea’s husband, gave an equally virtuosic performance, this time on the piano accordion. This instrument is generally but not exclusively associated with gypsy and folk music. In the hands of Djordje Gajic, it was transformed into a classical instrument on which works by Franck and Scarlatti, among others, were performed.
Starting with Franck’s Chorale no. 2 in B Minor, Djordje Gajic demonstrated complete mastery over all technical difficulties this work threw at him. It is, naturally, an adaptation from organ to piano accordion and what gets gained in translation was more important than what got lost in this case. Starting sedately and rather solemnly, on a pedal note that inched up chromatically with ever-changing harmonies around which a typical Franck melody is woven, Choral no. 2 in B Minor built up in an almost epic manner, with the sound augmenting to almost impossible proportions, the harmonies becoming more dense and intricate but with the melody always placed above all else. This interpretation truly showed up this magnificent work as a typical mid-nineteenth-century French composition, with its impeccable style and refined taste.
Next came two Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, namely, Sonata in E Major and Sonata in F Major. The former is built around a cluster of teasing trills, repetitive notes, and the typical question and answer technique between the left and right hands. It moved on simple clear lines and echo effects, with a temporary modulation to its relative minor ke y. The F Major Sonata, on the other hand, is slightly more developed conceptually that the Sonata in E Major. There were numerous points of imitation and the contrapuntal network was neat and controlled throughout.
The last three items on the programme were ones composed by Russian composers. The first of these was the superb Five Pictures from Gulag by Victor Vlassov. This is a programmatic work that describes, in almost painful detail, the horrendous, inhumane conditions of penal Gulag. Starting with ominous percussive sounds that seemed to imitate the marching of convicts (or soldiers) and alternating a melody on the very lower register of the instrument with an unnerving trill, the music settled on big chords that were full of foreboding and terror. The persistent cyclic, repetitive twirls gave more than a hint of irony, mockery even, and went a long way in depicting images of suffering. The second movement was more frenetic and busy, asking for articulate finger-work from the performer and a balance of tone and dynamics. Each miniature not only gave a graphic physical description of the harsh conditions in the Gulag, but also gave an articulate picture of the psychological horror and pain of prisoners serving time in this prison. Djordje’s interpretation brought out the emotional angst and suffering in almost unbearable detail — at the end the narrative was so clear that one could put pen to paper and write a story about it!
The penultimate piece was by Semyonov, namely, Kalina Krasnaya. Starting as an acoustic exercise, this work had a slow introduction that spanned the entire gamut of the tonal and dynamic spectrum of the piano accordion. A slow-winding melody developed on an almost chorale style – one could easily imagine it being sung in four- or five-part harmony. A descant developed on the main melody, while the harmonic patterns became increasingly more complex and diffuse. The tempo picked up considerably towards the middle section of the piece, with more dense figurations enhancing the structure of the piece. A brief lull gave way to a more hectic passage, always built on a sort of theme and variations paradigm. Such a beautiful work, wonderfully interpreted!
The last item on this varied and fascinating programme was Matveyev’s Fantasy. As the title of the piece implies, Fantasy is a deeply romantic work in spirit and temperament, moving from profound depths of pain to exalted heights of exuberance. The piece was characterised by a deep nostalgia in the slower passages, something that is unequivocally associated with Russian music. This was transformed into brilliant patches of frenzied finger-work, which was coloured by an almost improvisatory impetus.
Once again, this was another memorable concert in a long list of performances that dazzle with their diversity. In fact, the range and breadth of these concerts are indicative of the careful programming that goes into the VIAF every year. Not one concert is like the other; ensembles are different every day and the audience is treated to an extremely wide diversity of works, composers, and styles. And all of this is offered for free!