The Academy of St Martin in the Fields began working with German violinist Julia Fischer nearly 20 years ago, and have worked together regularly ever since. The close communication and high level of mutual musical understanding they have thus developed was evident in their concert at Cadogan Hall this weekend. Fischer was soloist in the two concerto works, but also directed the orchestra throughout. The Swiss pianist Oliver Schnyder joined her for the Mendelssohn, and the concert was by way of a launch for their forthcoming short tour of Switzerland together.

Julia Fischer © Felix Broede | Decca
Julia Fischer
© Felix Broede | Decca

The programme began with Haydn’s Violin Concerto in G major. An early work, it is one of probably just four that can be reliably authenticated as by Haydn, first attributed in 1769, but probably composed somewhat earlier. The clear late Baroque-influenced use of ritornello is combined with the beginnings of Classical formality of structure and line, and the AMSF tackled it with poise, elegance and a suitably bright tone throughout. Fischer’s slightly serious and intense approach to the first movement was slightly at odds here, but she warmed to the task, and by the final movement, taken at a cracking pace, the spirit and joy of the piece came alive. Whilst this is not the most virtuosic of concertos, Fischer played the two cadenzas in the first two movements with effortless precision and impressive control.

Fischer was then joined on stage by Schnyder for the Mendelssohn. Composed when he was just 14, this is a remarkable work, showing incredible maturity in his skilful balancing of the two solo instruments, as well as being full of youthful energy and a profusion of creative musical ideas. After the orchestral introduction, the piano and then the violin enter with emphatic entries, and immediately Schnyder and Fischer established strong authority and confidence. Fischer demonstrated pinpoint accuracy and command with incredibly precise spiccato passagework. The first movement in particular is full of musical material, almost episodic, with strongly contrasted sections for orchestral and solo forces. One particularly beautiful section has the violin playing an aria-like melody over rippling piano accompaniment, and the two soloists here clearly took special delight in this duet. At times here the fulsome acoustic did not favour the piano, and the precision of articulation so evident in Fischer’s playing was as a result not always matched by Schnyder.

The central Adagio contains at its heart a lengthy section for the two soloists alone, and here Fischer’s sweet tone was paired with a beautifully sensitive touch from Schnyder. There was also some wonderful pianissimo playing from the ASMF strings when they returned, before building to the repeated rising scales that close the movement. Schnyder launched the dance of the finale with great spirit, soon joined by Fischer, and the strings were duly inspired to respond with real energy. The violin responds to the repeated octave runs in the piano with some challenging double stopping, and once again here both soloists clearly enjoyed the almost competitive exchanges.  

The audience gave the Mendelssohn a deservedly warm reception, and as a reward we were treated to a dazzling performance of the last movement of Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata no. 1 in D minor, Op.75. Fischer launched into the moto perpetuo violin part at breakneck speed, and her accuracy and control were impressive. Again, they were clearly having fun here, and the orchestral players were evidently as impressed as the audience.

After the interval, there was a profound mood change as we moved into the highly Romantic and intense world of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Originally composed for string sextet in 1899 when the composer was just 25, Schoenberg arranged it for string orchestra in 1917, and further revised it much later in 1943. It was inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel, about a woman who walks with her lover in a moonlit forest, and confesses she is pregnant by another man. Her lover ultimately forgives her and the intensity of their love and the beauty of the moonlight brings them together. Passionate stuff and here the players, led by Fischer, took a while to settle into this new mood, after the joie de vivre of the first half. However, despite a few untidy ends to the surging phrases, the ensemble was strong, and there was a real chamber feel to the performance, with individual players and sections taking responsibility for the ebb and flow of tempi, needing minimal direction from Fischer. The first viola, Robert Smissen, deserves particular mention, as the violas are key to the depth and intensity of this piece. Once the drama got going, the lightness of the first half was forgotten, and the string players’ rich depth of sound built to convey the anguish and passion required. Glassy muted violins, the lush cello major tune, and the solo violin and cello conversation were all performed with conviction, bringing the concert to a satisfying, if slightly sombre conclusion.