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Brighton Year-Round 2024

St Nicholas Kwanita Kwan-Lam Lau & Guangmel Chen Schumann Violin Sonatas

Kwanita Kwan-Lam Lau and Guangmel Chen

Genre: Live Music

Venue: St Nicholas Church, Dyke Road, Brighton


Low Down

Kwanita Kwan-Lam Lau and Guangmel Chen played Schumann Violin Sonatas 1 and 2 at the St Nicholas Concert series.

To have these Sonatas played and one after another too, is an absolute privilege, almost a luxury


This is a rare, rapt recital for midsummer, though the colours are autumnal. Kwanita Kwan-Lam Lau and Guangmel Chen played Schumann Violin Sonatas 1 and 2 at the St Nicholas Concert series.

Why are Schumann’s three Violin Sonatas so little known? Even this recital bills the Second as more troubled and late-period. But in fact Schuman write both at the height of his fame in September and October 1851, around the time of his (revised ) Symphony No. 4 and before his Cello Concerto. Yet they’re very different.

The first in A minor, Op 105, a full-blooded and quite popular, reminds us precisely where Elgar got so much of his own mercurial, melodic nervosity, seen particularly in his own late Violin Sonata. Schumann here is strikingly pre-Elgar.

The First Sonata’s three movements in gnarly German markings are basically Allegro, an Andante and Allegro Vivace. The sweep of the first is well-taken by Lau who, like Isabelle Faust in her recording of all three sonatas, isn’t afraid of rough edges and values passion, commitment and integrity over overly manicured playing.

That’s absolutely perfect for taking the fast movements of this sonata, with its rubati; and both the first movement with its involved fantasy and the exuberant finale benefit from this, though sometimes you wonder if there’s a hairpin bend to negotiated. The second movement is an agitated slow-ish song, very like a Schumann lied, expressive and airborne. Lau takes the whole in one breath.

Chen plays with power and animation, and the two charge through some of the filigree like filaments of hot wire. The First Sonata can take this kind of vehemence, though other approaches are viable. The one thing not to do is lose focus, and this pair never do.

The Violin Sonata No 2 in D minor also invite incisive paying. It starts with tw huge downstrokes on the violin, and unlike its predecessor is more shadowy, more abrupt, exploratory and less flul-blooded in its romanticism. If anything it stands in relation to the first as Smetena’s Second Quartet does to his First: an odd analogy, since the abrupt later quartet really is written in extremis. But it shares a compression after a first essay in expansiveness.

Whatever it is, it needs careful handling. Lau has the expressive depth in her 1760 Bolognese instrument to lay the foundations.

The curious scherzo-like minuet instead of looking back to Bach looks forward to another great quoter of him, Brahms.

It’s striking that this movement with its abrupt urgency and switchback moments prefigures Brahms’s Scherzo from the composite FAE Sonata we’ll come back to. It’s one of the few moments you can hear Brahms being influenced. It’s infectious and the end at least catapults us to another language

This is a world of Bach-like shadows though, and though musicologists point it out it’s not easy to discern, save in the chaconne-like slow movement, a set of variations on Bach’s Cantata 131. Spot that! Again Lau burns through this with an emphasis on structural depth, and possibly less fantasy here and elsewhere, as one violinist present – who’s played the second sonata – suggested.

Chen’s at a slight disadvantage with the power of fine new instrument and church acoustic bloom: meaning a subtler palette can prove elusive. The last page though has Lau and Chen on top form as they fine down the ending exquisitely, as is absolutely required.

The finale boisterously returns to optimism, at least in its final stages, after moving through more fantasia, where the heft and power of Lau is persuasive and above all refusing to be drawn to sidelights. Impetuous and feroce, these players bring their own truth.

There are losses, of course, and being midsummer, with this acoustic, with heat playing loose with both strings and the piano bloom, this is never going to set up filigree cobwebs in the rafters.


(Incidentally, Schumann wrote the Third and last Sonata (like No. 1 also in A minor) his final major work just after his Violin Concerto in October 1853. Its first movement recalls it too, and it’s suffused with valediction. It came after Schumann wrote two movements for a composite Sonata for the young violinist Joseph Joachim, to which Brahms contributed a now-famous scherzo (influenced as we’ve seen by Schumann), and Albert Dietrich a first movement.

Schumann then wrote two more movements and everyone acclaimed it but it, like the Concerto was suppressed for even longer and had to be reconstructed in 1956. Like the Concerto, it needs a champion and is far more fantastical and interesting. Steven Isserlis has taken it up for the cello.)


To have these Sonatas played and one after another too, is though an absolute privilege, almost a luxury. I’d love to hear these works – and the Third – played by these artists again. And how they tackle Brahms and other repertoire will be worth following.