It is not often that a United Nations Messenger of Peace gives a concert in Sydney. Yet this is what happened on Sunday when Midori Gotō, the compassionate artist behind several non-profit organizations bringing quality music education to children, played a violin recital with pianist Özgür Aydin. In a city where chamber music recitals are few and far between, it seemed like an ill-afforded luxury to invite one of the great violinists of our time to perform in the small, if packed, Utzon Room of the Opera House, even if the afternoon concert was repeated in the evening.

Midori © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
© Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Size, however, was the least of the problems for the concert venue. The Utzon Room is a stunning location during the day when the large windows behind the artists open to a spectacular view of Sydney Harbour, complete with sailing boats, commuter ferries, and the expanse of the water with a pelican or a whale performing the occasional post-recital photobomb. This magical backdrop unfortunately disappears by the evening; what remains is a poorly lit, oddly shaped hall (its width about twice the size of its depth), with unattractive concrete beams providing its low ceiling and a most unfortunate artwork covering its back wall. The hard surfaces of glass and concrete create the acoustically ‘honest’ environment that most musicians dread. Unlike in custom designed concert venues, there is no helpful resonance and the sound of even the best instruments struggles to project. It did not help matters that the delicate tone of Midori’s playing was paired with the dull and unattractive sound of the Yamaha grand piano chosen for this concert. I was sitting on the right hand side of the stage, where the mix of instrumental sounds is commonly thought to be less than ideal; but then so was a third of the audience.

These factors influenced the balance between the two instruments significantly and, unfortunately, the piano sounded overbearing for most of the recital. It was hardly the fault of Özgür Aydin, for he played with assured technique and followed Midori’s phrasing without fail. Nonetheless, the tremolo murmur that begins Franz Schubert’s Fantasie in C major, D934 resembled more a finger exercise with every note clearly audible rather than the velvety cushion of harmonies, as they ought to sound; the trills in the slow introduction sounded laboured rather than vivacious. Later, in the same piece, for example, in the violin pizzicato (or plucked) variations on the composer’s own song, Sei mir gegrüßt, Schubert’s characteristic pearl-like runs in the piano part felt far less elegant than the violinist’s rapid passages responding in the next variation.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Phantasy was much more successful in terms of clarity and balance of sound, perhaps because in that composition, the two instruments play a far more independent role; so much so, that apparently Schoenberg wrote the violin part fully first, before even starting work on the piano part.

The Phantasy is an extremely condensed composition, offering very few clues to the uninitiated. There are no easily recognisable themes, no repeated sections, and don’t even hope for easily recognisable harmonies in this work; after all, it was Schoenberg’s last instrumental composition. Every gesture is – or appears to be – new and the constant change of meter, pitch, volume and the relationship between the two instruments is as challenging as it is fascinating. The composer’s claim that the Phantasy rests on tradition, and is destined to become a tradition, is perhaps a fraction exaggerated; nonetheless, listening to this work was akin to observing a game of chess between some of the best players in the world: it is hard to follow in all its depth, but the mastery is still perfectly obvious, even if only small details are clearly recognisable.

Establishing the Viennese theme of the concert, it began with a selection from Liszt's Soirées de Vienne, Valses-Caprices after Schubert S427, originally for solo piano. Which of Liszt’s nine Soirées de Vienne sets was performed or who transcribed them for violin and piano remains unknown, as there were no programme notes available. At any rate, the violin part was virtuosically played, laced with numerous double stops (two notes played simultaneously) in parallel thirds and sixths, while Aydin’s characteristic Viennese waltz-playing was pleasingly atmospheric.

The highlight of the recital was the performance of the Sonata in G major by Johannes Brahms. Midori’s ethereal phrasing made me forget the down-to-earth projection of her partner. With her expressive body language she seemed to be in perfect symbiosis with the sonata, allowing the audience to have a brief glimpse into her inner world, where every note followed a direction and every instruction of the score gained a musical meaning. For a magical half hour or so, even the dark Sydney Harbour in the background seemed to be lit up by the serene beauty of this performance.