Kings Place has dedicated 2019 to its “Venus Unwrapped” series, focusing on female composers from medieval to contemporary. Violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and pianist Huw Watkins offered a programme of turn-of-the-century violin works by Lili Boulanger, Rebecca Clarke and Amy Beach. Rather haphazardly programmed alongside sonatas by Debussy and Beethoven, Waley-Cohen and Watkins demonstrated that these unjustly neglected works deserve to be performed as often as the works of their male counterparts.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen © Ben Russell
Tamsin Waley-Cohen
© Ben Russell

Lili Boulanger’s Deux morceaux, long considered hidden gems among the trove of fin de siècle salon pieces, have enjoyed a recent resurgence with the centenary of her death last year. These two miniatures are brief but exquisitely proportioned, full of lush evocative harmonies in the piano. Waley-Cohen’s floated, almost transparent tone was ideal for the intimate Nocturne, but was quickly overwhelmed by the ever-thickening textures in Watkins’ accompaniment. The Cortège was taken at a slower tempo than usual, at odds with the effervescent music. Waley-Cohen’s tone often turned shrill in the upper register, with some wayward intonation in the ascending runs. The Debussy sonata found Waley-Cohen on better form, with a lovely fluid tone that shifted and swirled alongside Watkins’ playing, which was particularly impressive, with a crystal-clear sound that perfectly matched Debussy’s tempo marking of “fantasque et léger”. Both were well matched in the intelligence and subtlety of their artistry – the opening movement was wonderfully paced, with ravishingly soft playing that was by turns sensual and pure. The finale suffered from an overly floated violin sound, with insufficient attack to either cut through the piano part or to give the movement the virtuoso excitement it requires.

Though Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata is firmly established in the repertoire, her earlier Violin Sonata is rarely performed and in fact only received its first performance in 2000. Waley-Cohen’s championing of the work will hopefully spark wider recognition, as it is truly an exceptional composition. Like the Viola Sonata, it displays the influence of Debussy and Clarke's British contemporaries but maintains a rapturous, almost sensual lyricism throughout. Particularly striking was the second movement, full of textural detail that proved an ideal showpiece for Waley-Cohen and Watkins’ artistry. The rhapsodic opening movement, operatic in its melodic outpourings, demonstrated Watkins’ expansive sound and the legato that was missing from Waley-Cohen’s playing.

Happily, the second half found Waley-Cohen sounding her best. Amy Beach’s Three Compositions were carefully distinguished in tone and colour, with a wonderful salon-like intimacy to the opening La Captive and an elegantly wry Mazurka from both artists. Best of all, however, was Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 10 in G major. Beethoven’s final sonata for violin is worlds away from his earlier more tumultuous ones, suffused with autumnal warmth. Waley-Cohen and Watkins offered an intelligent account of the opening movement, full of assurance and glowing tone. The central Adagio espressivo was spectacular, full of time-stopping harmonic suspensions played daringly softly. If only the rest of the programme had received such care – those unjustly neglected composers surely deserved better.

**111