How many violin sonatas did Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms write? None is the surprising answer. They did of course compose many sonatas for violin and piano. This is not just a semantic nicety but expresses a profound truth of the equal importance of the pianist in these sonatas. This dynamic of equals, present in the majority of pieces in last night’s recital, was not always successfully caught. In the third of four concerts in the Nordic series in the NCH, Danish violinist, Nikolaj Znaider was joined by American pianist Robert Kulek in a programme that centred heavily on German romanticism.

Nikolaj Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

The key of A major might have been the common denominator between Sonata no. 2 of Beethoven and Brahms of the first half but the two styles were utterly different: the former being capricious and mischievous; the latter, passionate and lyrical. The zaniness of Shostakovitch was a suitable palate cleanser for the intense yearning of Brahms’ final sonata. 

Znaider and Kulek launched head first into the charmingly cheeky first subject of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 2. The exchange between piano and violin was finely balanced, each ceding to the other as the melody passed effortlessly from one to the other. There was a daring quality to the accented chromaticism of the violin’s iteration of the main theme and for the rest of the movement both seemed to revel in the good-natured banter between the instruments.

What was most impressive in the second movement Andante was the shared sense of musical vision. There seemed to be a musical telepathy in how each shaped their antiphonal phrases. An air of gentle melancholy permeated the A minor sections here and I was struck by how intensely the Znaider-Kulek duo communicated during the silence of the rests. The concluding Allegro featured mercurial arpeggios from the piano and winsome moments from the violin. The jocular mood almost fell flat as the dialogue edged close to disjointedness at one point but the duo held it together for a sparkling final flourish.

The Brahms’ Sonata no. 2 in A major was the least successful in last night’s concert. Of course, there was much to admire here and there were many moments of great beauty. The climax of the second subject in the recapitulation of the opening Allegro amabile was intense and passionate, exploding on to the octaves. There was a nobility of sound to the beginning of the third movement Allegretto and Znaider’s daring to take more time over the climax in this same movement was both novel and arresting. However, what disappointed most was the inconsistent support from the piano. At times, I longed for Kulek to provide a meatier accompaniment, for example in the development section of the first movement. The sparse pedalling coupled with some slips marred the climax of this movement, while in the finale Znaider’s passionate responses fell flat due to some infelicities in the piano part.

The Shostakovich vignettes demonstrated another side to Znaider; one that is both witty and zany, capable of revelling in the satirical and parodic. The four Préludes he chose (no. 10, 15, 16 and 24) are perennial favourites, and so violinistic are the transcriptions that even the composer himself forgot that they were originally composed for the piano. Znaider imbued the first nocturne-like C sharp minor prelude (no. 10) with mournful lyricism though at times I longed for a more ethereal quality. There was terrific verve to the waltz of no. 15 while the harmonics double-stops at the end were nothing short of groovy. Emphasising the sharp rhythms of no. 16, Znaider played up the march-like qualities rather than its eerie ones. In the final one, both violinist and pianist seemed to mutually enjoy its zany harmonies to the full, while also highlighting its humorous side.

Brahms’ Sonata no. 3 in D minor, which closed the recital, did not suffer from the same inconsistencies of the second sonata. And while Kulek at times (in the second subject of the opening Allegro) lacked a sufficiently sonorous Brahmsian sound, the times he did open himself and go for it (in the passionate section of the third movement), the effect was explosive. Employing an intense vibrato, Znaider made his violin (a Guarneri del Gesù) sing in the soaring phrases. Equally impressive was the warm sound from the G string which he elicited at the beginning of the Adagio and the double-stops of this same movement were passionately connected. Both attacked the final Presto with vim, the contrapuntal lines and the urgent sf propelling the music forward to its powerful conclusion.