Appearing at Milton Court the day after her performance of Salonen’s Violin Concerto at the Barbican, Leila Josefowicz enclosed three short utterances from the 20th century with two works by Schubert. After a shaky start to the evening, Josefowicz turned out an impressive performance full of fire and flair, excelling in Stravinsky’s Duo concertant. Pianist John Novacek made a strong contribution, while allowing Josefowicz to steal the show.

Leila Josefowicz © CM Artists
Leila Josefowicz
© CM Artists

The sense of ebb and flow established by Novacek in the opening bars of Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A major suggested that a performance of lyrical breadth lay ahead; however, Josefowicz’s entry made it clear that the violinist had different ideas. With an intense (and sometimes hard) sound and a sense of forward drive, she was determined to bring out the tempestuous dimension of the music. It often seemed like the two were pulling in different directions, with Novacek resisting Josefowicz’s stormy temperament in favour of a more mellow interpretation. Luckily, the third movement saw the pair more in synchrony, resulting in a heartfelt and tender Andantino. Poetic rubato was used sparingly to great effect, lending this movement an affecting sense of sincerity and providing some meltingly wistful interludes in the otherwise high-spirited finale. Throughout the sonata, though, there were notable issues with Josefowicz’s playing, with frequent slips of intonation and an occasional loss of focus in quieter moments. Both of these problems recurred during the course of the evening, albeit it to a lesser degree.

Any former difference of vision between Josefowicz and Novacek vanished in their outstanding performance of Stravinsky’s Duo concertant. The two were equal partners, finding a sense of spaciousness and romanticism in the music while imbuing it with bite and energy. Josefowicz’s raw sound suited the work’s neoclassical idiom perfectly: she gave a feisty performance, but found room for moments of vulnerability (for example, at the end of the “Cantilène”). The “Gigue” dazzled, with musical corners deftly handled and Josefowicz’s passagework alternately playful and ferocious.

Stravinsky’s Chanson Russe originates from his 1922 opera, Mavra. Arranged by the violinist Samuel Dushkin for his 1937 tour with the composer, the folk-style lament is treated to eight transformations, exploring a range of temperaments and harmonic areas. Josefowicz approached the piece with great sensitivity, lingering over modal inflections and exploring the expressive implications of each modulation. Her characterizations ranged from fragile to full-blooded, supported by Novacek’s firm accompaniment.

György Kurtág’s haunting and enigmatic Tre pezzi make the most of the bare minimum of musical material. The mood of stillness in Josefowicz and Novacek’s performance created a mood of poignant expectancy, imbuing each note with emotional intensity. This was not a bland performance by any means: the opening movement built to a stirring climax, while the cat-and-mouse games of the second were suddenly interrupted by an episode of thunderous violence. Josefowicz’s wispy sound lent the third movement a beautiful sense of fragility, bringing a moving end to the set.

Schubert’s Rondo in B minor closed the recital. After the problems with the Schubert earlier in the evening, I had my reservations over how successful this piece would be; luckily, my doubts were unfounded. Josefowicz revelled in the virtuosic elements of this exuberant piece, her large bow strokes adding a sense of searing intensity to her silvery but rich sound. Although her interpretation focused on dramatic contrast, the episodes were integrated into a seamless narrative, with each return of the rondo theme characterized differently. Although the lyrical episodes were tender, they were never indulgent, with flexibility of tempo was coupled with a sense of propulsion. The blazing Presto coda saw Josefowicz bring the evening to its end with poise and character. 

****1