1886 and 1887 were apparently ripe with inspiration for violin sonatas. Those two years saw Brahms, aged 53, compose his third sonata, as well as César Franck, aged 64, compose one of his very last works as a wedding present for Eugène Ysaÿe. At the other end of the spectrum saw the 22-year-old Richard Strauss compose his sonata, representing one of the earliest of his works to have remained in the standard repertoire. These three sonatas made up the extremely demanding programme presented by violinist Augustin Dumay and pianist Louis Lortie, providing fascinating insight into the sheer variety of musical ideas and techniques that must have been circulating around Europe during those two years.

Augustin Dumay © Elias
Augustin Dumay
© Elias

French violinist Dumay is often held up as the last of the great Franco-Belgian school, characterized by a clean, extremely flexible tone. In this way, Dumay was ideally matched with Lortie’s refined subtlety, characterized above all by clean pedalling and transparent voicing. This restraint was in full effect in the Brahms sonata that opened the programme – the mysterious sotto voce opening was wonderfully atmospheric and balanced perfectly between the two players. Particularly striking was the development of the first movement, a seemingly endless modulation of quavers in both instruments that was voiced with great clarity. The second movement is one of the most unabashedly romantic movements Brahms ever wrote for violin, and here their restrained approach worked less successfully. Eschewing the traditional sul G opening and adopting a relatively swift tempo, there was insufficient tonal contrast with the first movement. Similarly, the climax of the movement, with its high chords and accelerating arpeggios, did not sufficiently discriminate itself from the passages before. The third movement scherzo was similarly anonymous, though the fourth movement finale was suitably frenzied.

Lasting 20 minutes with its four movements, the Brahms sonata is a masterpiece of conciseness. Strauss’ sonata, a sprawling virtuoso showpiece in three movements, is decidedly less so. In particular, Dumay’s tendency to clip notes short at the ends of phrases resulted in an often abrupt, jumpy performance. This was most apparent in the second movement, further emphasized by Lortie’s percussive approach to the score. Though this did result in increased clarity and brought out some dazzling virtuosic moments for both performers, the performance felt rather unfinished and unsatisfying. It was a particular shame given that Dumay’s golden tone and impeccable technique should have been an ideal fit for the piece.

Louis Lortie © Elias
Louis Lortie
© Elias

This was redeemed by an excellent performance of the Franck sonata following the interval. Though some of Dumay’s more eccentric phrasing habits remained evident, the highly structured nature of Franck’s score meant that these expressive liberties enhanced rather than detracted from the performance. However, the true star of the performance was Lortie, who elicited a dazzling array of colours from the piano from the delicate filigree of the opening movement to the turbulent passagework of the second. Here, as well, demonstrated remarkable communication and pacing between the two artists, particularly in the dramatic Recitativo-Fantasia third movement which, as its name suggests, is highly declamatory. However, the highlight of the evening was the brief encore: the third movement scherzo from Beethoven’s Seventh Sonata, played with a minimum of fuss and energy to spare.