Friday, 14 January 2011

Angels amd Demons / Jessica Mathaes Violin Recital / Review

University Cultural Centre
Wednesday (12 January 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times
on 14 January 2011 with the title "Devil's best tunes thrilled".

The first chamber concert of the year took some time to warm up. Beethoven’s early Sonata in A major (Op.12 No.2) was the appetiser in the recital by American violinist Jessica Mathaes, Concertmaster of the Austin Symphony Orchestra in Texas.

The opening was taken at a sprightly pulse, with staccato playing that was both light and flighty. The slow movement was well-paced, leading to a lively finale that could have done with a little more humour, No signs of angels nor demons yet, until Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonata in G minor, better known as the Devil’s Trill, took hold.

Here the gremlin was in the Theatre’s dry acoustics, which did not flatter the statuesque Mathaes’ robust tone on her 1807 Johannes Cuypers violin. Legend has it that Tartini had dreamt of Satan fiddling away furiously at the foot of his bed, thus inspiring its composition. Its performance hinged on the music’s ability to conjure up a hair-raising experience. Unfortunately, the menace of diablerie did not surface, instead remained firmly under the sheets.

The second half was more engaging. One suspects Mathaes to be more comfortable in evoking angels, as her performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending was true beauty to behold. Its meditative soliloquys revealed a purity of sound that was ethereal, and taking wing on a flight of fantasy that was the central episode’s pentatonic melody.

Pianist Wang Ya-Hui (formerly the Music Director of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra) proved a rock-steady partner throughout, always sensitive and alert to the shifts in dynamics, even if she was not completely note-perfect.

Both musicians were taxed to the limit in Saint-Saens’ Violin Sonata in D minor, a work so thorny that angels fear to tread. Here Mathaes and Wang were no fools rushing into trouble, instead infused with the devil-may-care bravado to go for broke, and making the outing work.

The final two movements were more than just an exercise in fast playing. Part of the adrenaline rush was to witness the performance teeter on the edge of the abyss, and then righting itself for a breathless close. Their resolute showing brought on hearty applause, later topped off with Vieuxtemps’ fiendishly delicious Variations on Yankee Doodle. As they say, the Devil gets the best tunes.

This concert was presented as part of the ExxonMobil Campus Concert series at the National University of Singapore. All photos courtesy of NUS Centre for the Arts.

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