As an integral part of the lakeside Lugano Art and Culture Center (LAC), the Swiss city’s new concert hall is something of an architectural and acoustical gem. On three levels that slant towards the stage, the hall of some 1000 seats is clad in soft golden pear throughout – a wood whose smooth, silky siding is interrupted only by profiled side-consoles that buffer the sound. The ceiling too has features that give every reach a sense of audio intimacy, making the stage ideal for a small and gifted configuration such as this one was.

Daniel Müller-Schott © Uwe Arens
Daniel Müller-Schott
© Uwe Arens

Julia Fischer is this year's Artist-in-Residence at the LAC, and her and Daniel Müller-Schott’s fine Italian instruments made the couple a likely match: Ms Fischer plays a Guadagnini violin (1742); Müller-Schott’s cello is by the Venetian master Matteo Goffriller (1727). In Lugano, the duo launched Zoltán Kodály’s demanding 1914 Duet for violin and violincello, Op.7, doing so as if taking up a common breath, such was their delicate and quiet volume at he start of the Allegro serioso. In the Adagio, the two exchanged short themes, often alternating pizzicato with bronze and mellifluous string work. In the Maestoso e largamente – the most demonstrative of the movements –, both players took their bow-work to full throttle, showing remarkable agility in even the most robust play. A passionate dialogue back and forth included an audible reference to gypsy folklore before a fully dynamic ending.

Sadly, though, I had to fault the hall for the evening’s peculiar lighting convention. Throughout the concert, a “top-down” hard spot cast a distorted, if not disconcerting, silhouette of the open piano lid into the back wall, but failed to illuminate the musician’s faces adequately. Both players, we saw, had a shock of brightly top-lit dark hair, but nuances of their expressions and the eye-contact between them were lost to the audience, even to those fairly close to the stage.

Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A minor “Arpeggione”, D.821, saw the multi-talented Ms Fischer at the piano for the cello accompaniment. For my taste, hers was too generous a pedal in the first movement, her volume upstaging the cello in several instances. Further, the absence of real playfulness and luminosity here imparted a “staid” sensation that was hardly the Schubert I expected. That was until I learned that the piece − written for the arpeggione instrument that has long since become obscure − dated from 1824, a time when, four years before his early death, the syphilitic composer was also struggling with a major depression.

Julia Fischer © Felix Broede
Julia Fischer
© Felix Broede

The second movement, by contrast, was sublime evidence of the early Romantic tradition: lyrical and lullaby-like in its sweeping crescendos and cadences. Further, the third movement nicely highlighted Müller-Schott’s extraordinary fingerwork; the piano also gained good momentum towards the end of the piece, even despite the overly modest ending.

Ms Fischer’s truly shining moment here in Lugano came after the interval, though, with J.S. Bach’s violin Sonata no. 1 in G minor, BWV1001, composed in 1720. In the Adagio, the violinist quickly entered a kind of personal cosmos, offering the entirely hushed audience the best of the master’s sublime work. In the Fugue, she showed impassioned playing, poising frontally, but pivoting around her core, her strong and powerful accents consistently marked by supreme confidence and technical accuracy. The sonata’s Siciliana included remarkably subtle variations, sometimes as tender as to almost be inaudible, while in the final Presto, the line scurried back and forth at warp speed, never without remarkable color, the energy running down even to her tapping feet.

Finally, Müller-Schott joined again for Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, written between 1920 and 1922 as a tribute to Claude Debussy. The piece seemed surprisingly modern: an almost childlike and playful beginning gave way to a stormy sound that, in turn, dissolved into an ethereal matrix. It seemed even to foreshadow modern composers − Steve Reich in particular – and surprisingly, in the second movement, Müller-Schott’s fine cello suddenly gave us moments almost like free jazz. While the work’s swivels and snaps must have surprised its première audience almost a century ago, it felt somewhat lacking in narrative possibilities here in Lugano, if not, at times, slightly listless. Fortunately, the final movement was a wake-up call. Fischer’s bow-work had moved from featherweight to almost bombastic, and both players ended on what felt like a “fiery” chord.