FringeReview UK 2018
Violinist Oliver Nelson and pianist Vasilis Rakitzis perform Smyrna-born Yannis Constantinidis’ Petite Suite sur des melodies populaires du Dodécanese, Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending and Grieg’s Violin Sonata in C minor Op 45.
Violinist Oliver Nelson and pianist Vasilis Rakitzis are one of those visiting fixtures anyone who loves violin-playing in the south-east or further afield look forward to. And there’s always something innovative in their programming alongside established classics.
For a while we’ve taken sovereign command for granted in these artists. But there’s something in Nelson’s playing that makes it distinctive: a husky nutty sound associated with gut strings and fine viola-playing. Here it’s stretched to the violin’s range; in the largest item, the Grieg Violin Sonata No. 3 Nelson freely digs into a superb cross-grained dark and zingy Nordic upper register, with Rakitzis’ dynamic aplomb.
We start with the unfamiliar. Smyrna-born Yannis Constantinidis (19o3-84) was a contemporary of the very different Nikos Skalkottas (1904-49) rebarbative giant of Greek modernism. Constantinidis on this evidence – the six-piece Petite Suite sur des melodies populaires du Dodécanese – you might expect him influenced by Bartok’s Six Rumanian Folksongs or indeed Skalkottas’ folksongs, and somehow to have studied with say Nadia Boulanger in Paris: the title and their delicacy suggests it. No, he studied like Skalkottas in Berlin and at the same time, but not with Schoenberg.
The pieces don’t possess the really earthy twang of Bartok or Skalkotttas. Constantinidis is more comfortable in the violin’s skin so to speak. The six pieces are delicate, and save for the last piece a wedding dance pretty flowing or slow: greater contrast might help. ‘Air de Karpathos’ lilts off, ‘Chant pastoral de Kalymnos’ varies it a bit with a faster turn, ‘Chant de danse de Rhodes’ – this man’s not going to intrigue us, is he? – is hallucinatory, sun-spelt. The final three ‘Danse de Leros’ introduces another high-suspended lyric work, and ‘Air de Archanguelos (Rhodes)’ suggests something deeper. Then we’re with that ‘Chant nuptial’ and it adds ‘et danse (Sousta) de Rhodes’. Rhodes – again. That’s lively, tangy, digging into the violin’s subsoil a bit.
These are highly attractive and I hope the duo programme them again, and anything else of this composer. Constantinidis is best known apart from symphonic and chamber music and songs, for seven Greek movies: these include The Germans Strike Again and The Drunkard.
Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending too was conceived in melancholy, the last gasp of Edwardian Britain as (we’re told) he saw the first troops embark for war in 1914. We know it from its orchestral guise. Here it’s a hushed chamber piece, brushed by Nelson’s delicacy with bowing, just as he’d dug in with the last Constantinidis piece and later, the Grieg. Exalted and exulting, elegaically. Never such innocence again. Superb.
There’s a family memory depicting how the Sealyham terrier Nobby was mischievously locked in the blue-dragoned Chinese Room next to the music room whilst my composer grandfather played the piano part of Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor Op 45. The dog started howling: he couldn’t stand violin sounds. Which is just by way of saying how these artists banished that memory completely whilst playing.
The three Grieg Sonatas as their opus numbers suggest – 6, 13, 45 – are weighted towards juvenilia, but the second really does show Grieg’s mature voice, coming straight after the first set of Lyric Pieces Op 12. The Op 45 comes after the Cello Sonata Op 36 too and it’s a gripping whirling dark piece playing with the highest and lowest register, not unlike the Op 16 Piano Concerto. There’s tragic intensity here, a man in the grip of personal unhappiness and realising it in a kind of condensed epic: that’s the scale this compact three-movement work operates on.
The Allegro molto de assopassionato is plain enough. A downbeat starts of a four-note rising and dipping then two sets of tied three-note figures, as Nelson’s bows scales from the G to E strings like a challenge flung to fate. The mood doesn’t let up, there’s no slow movement but an Allegretto espressivo alla Romanza that’s agitated, restless but more sheerly lyrical – though that first movement is insistently memorable.
As is the four-note repeating pattern of the thrilling Allegro animato with its downright folk-stamping, intense, dark unremitting. There’s no major lift, and it ends of itself, enough, to quote Ibsen. The relief might prove cathartic or temporary. Its effect though is indelible.
This is consummate playing. We shouldn’t be complacent about the luxury of such instrumentalists delivering programmes like these.