For many of those attending a Patricia Kopatchinskaja performance for the first time, the shock of her non-conformist appearance takes some time to absorb. On Thursday night, like other occasions, she dressed in a torn formal outfit – a crossover between a Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and one designed by Rei Kawakubo from the fashion label “Comme des garçons” – and wore her trademark slippers. Before casting them aside and starting to play barefoot (“to have better contact with the earth”), the violinist made some quick comments about the selected works on the program. She displayed such charm and wit that any tension in the air was rapidly cleared. Subsequently, it took only the first few bars of Poulenc’s Violin Sonata for everyone in the hall to realize that they had the privilege to face an extraordinary artist, a delicate butterfly and, at the same time, a resourceful, unbound Ariel distrusting anyone or anything trying to pin her down.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Julia Wesely
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Julia Wesely

Composed in occupied France and remembering Federico García Lorca, Poulenc’s score covers a full gamut of emotions from the jazzy joie de vivre in the first movement to the predominantly elegiac Intermezzo to the restless tragedy in the Finale. The music sounds captivating on the spot, but it doesn’t succeed to linger for too long in listeners’ ears. The piano is clearly an equal partner to the violin, so the piece was a perfect vehicle to display the very strong bond between two interpreters who approach music with the same unbridled passion, impeccable technique, and desire to bask every phrase in an unpredictable fresh air.

The other three works on the program were composed in the 1920s, but they share with Poulenc’s sonata the same quest for finding the right balance between melodic and purely abstract constructs and the same aspiration to incorporate (not just via direct quotes) “outside” idioms – folklore, jazz – into a classical music discourse. Even more, both the Bartók Violin Sonata no. 2 and Ravel’s Tzigane were dedicated to the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, who may have also been a source of inspiration for Poulenc’s opus (premièred instead by French virtuoso Ginette Neveu).

Polina Leschenko and Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Julia Wesely
Polina Leschenko and Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Julia Wesely

“Every single piece requires a different interpretation, a way of playing, to the point there are no generalized legatos or spiccatos” claimed Kopatchinskaja in a 2016 Strings magazine interview. The value of this assertion was never clearer during the Princeton recital than in the first notes of the Bartók sonata, composed when he was at his closest to atonality. Following a low F sharp piano chord, the violin intones seven dissonant, variable-length, repeated Es descending into silence that were equally imbued with what sounded as a different meaning: question, doubt, resignation, hope… The work is not only difficult for listeners to approach, but is also full of interpretative complexities, both rhythmically and in terms of technique. The two interpreters played as if joined together, constantly emphasizing the mercuriality of this music as opposed to its severity.

Because of her roots, Kopatchinskaja has always had a special affinity for Enescu’s Violin Sonata no. 3 in A minor "dans le caractère populaire roumain", one of the composer’s greatest successes in bringing together all the strands influencing his style, while using his own devised “mechanisms” for creating tonal and temporal ambiguities. One of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, George Enescu has provided a wealth of detailed annotations in terms of ornamentation or rates of vibrato. Following them, Kopatchinskaja brought, as always, her own perspective, her own transformative thoughts. The mixture between fiddling, lyricism and assertiveness was well balanced and the duo’s cohesion was again outstanding, with Polina Leschenko shining in the brilliant finale.

The last piece of the program, the ten-minute-long Tzigane, the best known of all four works, was full of color and ended into a hair-rising flurry of virtuosity. But that was not all. During a brief encore, Giya Kancheli Rag-Gidon-Time, the spirit of Chaplin’s Tramp, present during the entire evening, seemed to finally be able find his way into Kopatchinskaja’s little dancing steps.