By any measure, the collaboration of two musicians of the calibre of Richard Tognetti (violin) and Polina Leschenko (piano) ought to be a sold-out celebration of chamber music anywhere in the world. Sadly, this is not necessarily the case in Sydney, where – despite a generally burgeoning cultural environment – duo recitals are still a rarity, where, if you missed a performance of your favourite sonata, you might have to wait years before the next opportunity to hear it again. The premium quality chamber music concerts of Musica Viva seldom include more than one duo recital in any subscription series, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra regularly offers recitals for solo piano (but excludes other instruments), and there are only occasional initiatives by smaller organisations. The puzzling and near-complete absence of the delightful and rich repertoire for two instruments (most commonly piano with either violin or cello) still leaves a gaping hole in the musical landscape of this metropolis.

Polina Leschenko © Marco Borggreve
Polina Leschenko
© Marco Borggreve

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (of which Tognetti is the Artistic Director) has worked with Leschenko several times in the past, thus the intensely concentrated, yet good-humoured rapport between the two artists was not surprising. Each half of the concert amalgamated the styles of a shorter 20th-century work followed by a major violin sonata from the 19th century.

Unquestionably, what Tognetti cannot play on the violin may not even be worth playing. His handling of the bow is superb, matched by a dexterous left-hand technique which is as flawless as it is versatile. At the same time, his and Leschenko’s musicality never lacked the delicate perfume of spontaneity, while it seemed to be equally clear that no significant musical decision was left to chance.

The Russian pianist proved to be an ideal chamber music partner. Despite the lid of the majestic Steinway piano being fully opened, her sound blended exquisitely, never covering the violin part. While she followed Tognetti’s lead with delicate colours and subtle pedalling, her solo themes radiated individuality and confidence, creating not only a conversation with the violin part, but even voicing an opposing musical idea on occasion.

The artistry of Tognetti is commanding, but can at the same time be confronting. He began the opening number, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, somewhat impatiently, not even waiting for the audience’s applause to subside, and the performance of this work was characterised by a feeling of nervous tension. This may have been simply the result of an artistic decision and as such, to be respected; however, it slightly overshadowed the mesmerising effect of the composer’s bell-like harmonies and minimalistic sound effects.

The Violin Sonata in F major, Op.24, “Spring” by Ludwig van Beethoven came next, starting, under Tognetti’s hands, with an astonishingly gentle and personal reading of the first theme, in which every note, every legato provided its own meaning. After this exquisite beginning, it was startling to hear the second subject sounding serious, almost stark, with barely any vibrato. Granted, the use of vibrato in Beethoven’s time was optional and mostly treated as an ornament. This was clearly not Tognetti’s approach here and elsewhere in this Sonata, which suggests that the purpose of his varied use of vibrato (or lack thereof) was more musical than intended for authentic expression. As an artistic tool though, it felt somewhat inconsistent and over all, not always convincing, for example, when in cadences, he left the dissonant notes completely unvibrated several times and warmed up the sound with vibrato only on the final, quieter note.

Another special tone recurring in Tognetti’s playing was when his bow, while completely controlled, slid very fast from end to end. This technique created an elegant, fairy-like sound which suited the whimsical Scherzo movement of not only this Sonata, but also in that of the Sonata in D minor, Op.108 by Johannes Brahms excellently. It sounded less successful elsewhere, for example, in parts of the first two movements of that sonata, where to my taste, more resonance and depth was needed. While such stylistic features form an integral part of Tognetti’s formidable musicianship, they regularly challenge certain expectations that the listener might have – not of his playing, but of the compositions performed.

After the interval, Tognetti gave a dedicated performance to Peter Sculthorpe’s solo work, Irkanda I, followed by the Brahms Sonata attacca (without a break), and this unusual juxtaposition worked surprisingly well. The passionate dialogue between the two instruments in the last movement offered some of the most rewarding musical moments of the concert, which was then finished on a high note with two quirky encores by Clara Schumann and Georges Boulanger.