Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes. As anyone in the light entertainment industry will tell you, they don't really have to get along either, as long as they can "make 'em laugh". In music, however, it is critical to have a happy relationship and a meeting of minds, otherwise the connection is lost and the music flounders. Audiences are pretty perceptive and pick up on things like that. Fortunately the partnership between violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and her regular duo partner, pianist Polina Leschenko, was clearly fruitful in this adventurous and eclectic programme bringing together two pairs of complementary pieces from four major figures.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Julia Wesely
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Julia Wesely

First things first. Patricia Kopatchinskaja does not do "normal". Her stage presence is off-beat, full of intense concentration and curiously engaging, and her performances are intelligent and imaginative. The recital started with a single pianissimo harmonic held motionless in the air - the opening of Webern's remarkable Four Pieces, Op.7. Kopatchinskaja and Leschenko delicately exchanged notes, phrases and wisps of fleeting sound, varying from moments of stillness to vitriolic outburts as the piece wavered between ppp and fff, with one passage even marked kaum hörbar (barely audible). Both violin and piano captured Webern's music in the most potent way, with each sound and silence carefully placed, combining to condense a whole world of deeply concentrated atonal expressionism into just a few minutes. 

The next moment was unexpected. With no cues from the performers to take any applause at the end of the Webern, they paused briefly and then punched out the opening chords of Schumann's Violin Sonata no. 2 in D minor. Interestingly, Kopatchinskaja gave this 19th-century romantic piece a slight 20th-century makeover, complete with timbres and textures carried over from the Webern. Extreme contrasts characterised this performance, with Leschenko's lyricism and rippling piano shapes complementing Kopatchinskaja's fiery intensity and passion, but with the violinist choosing to exchange some of the usual warmth of Schumann for a more steely tone, playing near the bridge, on the fingerboard and using non-vibrato to create some curiously ghostly effects. This inventive approach had its attractions and was absorbing, but the downside of such a manicured performance was that it occasionally lacked coherence.

Polina Leschenko © Marco Borggreve
Polina Leschenko
© Marco Borggreve

The next pair of complementary pieces had a Hungarian theme. The first of these had Kopatchinskaja's mastery of evocative and varied techniques bringing Bartók's Violin Sonata no. 2 to life, with its rhythmic complexities and with diverse colours coming from the violin through pizzicato, glissandi, muting, sul ponticello, col legno and a bowing style marked "battuto e ruvido" (in a beaten and rough fashion), which saw Kopatchinskaja arching demonically over her instrument, as if in aggressive combat. These episodes contrasted markedly with airy, delicate flurries and moments of contemplation, countered by tension in the piano perfectly sustained by Leschenko. The furiously strident passages in the second movement were particularly well controlled without losing any of the wild fervour.

Ravel's Tzigane for violin and piano, his exotic gypsy-themed piece, was written in 1924 after hearing Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi play Bartók and Hungarian gypsy music two years earlier. The opening solo violin passage was hypnotic in the hands of Kopatchinskaja, with potency and warmth, a fair sprinkling of glitter and exhilarating changes of pace. Leschenko's piano support was sympathetic and pinpoint, with the duo bringing out all the colours with technical brilliance aplenty and clearly having fun with the quirkiness and sheer gypsy extravaganza.

Two mischievous encores, one of them blatantly comical like a well-polished double-act, finished with a warm embrace between the two performers showing that this was indeed a flourishing partnership and that even serious musicians can "make 'em laugh".