Caroline Goulding, violin; Wenwen Du, piano: Works by Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Bartok, Playhouse, November 1, 2015.

Raphaël Sévère, clarinet, Paul Montag, piano: Works by Borodin, Lutoslawski, Debussy, Berg, and Bernstein, Playhouse, October 25, 2015.

The Vancouver Recital Society’s fall season opened with a number of delightful concerts by ‘new generation’ artists.  Stunning German cellist Maximilian Hornung started things off, and now French clarinetist Raphaël Sévère and American violinist Caroline Goulding have performed in two consecutive weeks.  These latest recitals were really of the highest order, the poise and freshness of the playing completely taking away any idea that these were immature artists.  Any seeming innocence on the part of the performers was more of a delight than anything else.

23-year old Caroline Goulding is an Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient who locates in Boston but who enjoyably chases all over the world to receive lessons from her teacher-in-motion, Christian Tetzlaff.  As she revealed, the benefit of this is that she gets to see Tetzlaff in performance, and this gives her great insight into how to prepare for her own appearances.  This recital was also interesting because it enlisted the services of Wenwen Du, a young local pianist who is now lauded as a very fine lieder accompanist, and collaborates frequently with tenor Ian Bostridge.  The pianist met the violinist for the first time only three days prior to the concert but I must say that they collaborated like they had been together for years.

The Bach A major Sonata revealed just how pure and clean Caroline Goulding’s tone is, and just how elegant and refined her articulation can be.  This was not heavy Bach in the slightest, the violinist often finding a gentle dance-like flow in the rhythms and letting her pristine tonal precision carry the more demanding passages. A natural enthusiasm always informed her playing, and an honesty of expression too.  At first, I was taken back to memories of Arthur Grumiaux, but then I recognized the Tetzlaff influence in the plasticity of the flow and phrase. Allusions to such exalted artists can hardly be an embarrassment!

The Beethoven C minor Violin Sonata in turn was quite extraordinary, finding both dramatic strength and a tender lyricism, with cunning detailing and ample inner repose.  One always noted Goulding’s variety of phrase shapes and accents, the joy in her playing, and her ability to change the emotional fabric in revealing ways.  With Wenwen Du displaying a pianism freer and more dramatic than I have previously seen, the opening movement explored a significant range of feelings and achieved convincing power and cohesion.  Nonetheless, it was the Adagio which dug to the depths through the violinist’s discerning control of vibrato, texture and dynamics.  Here the both artists found real involvement and intimacy, strongly contrasting distilled inward moments with the more demonstrative postures.  In the former, it was almost like we were eavesdropping on their quiet personal story.  By any standards, this type of insight, coupled with such clean detailing, put this performance in the same league as the best: I might cite Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov as representative.  There was really no letdown in the Scherzo and Finale either; it would be difficult to do things much better than this!

Considerable thought also went into the shorter Debussy Sonata and Bartok’s Rhapsody.  In the former, the violin playing at the end of Intermède was absolutely ravishing and the enthusiasm of the Finale was compelling, The Bartok had a fresh-eyed energy. Nonetheless, as good as this playing was, I felt that both interpretations were less sure than the earlier ones.  Perhaps the French and Hungarian idioms have to be ‘lived with’ to make their expression perfectly natural, and at times I felt a trace of unfamiliarity with the exact type of dramatic expression and rhythmic push needed to give these works their balance.  Of course, these are just quibbling details: this was a remarkable recital.  I must also emphasize just how strong and perceptive Wenwen Du’s pianism was over so many different styles of writing.

The recital a week earlier with clarinetist Raphaël Sévère and pianist Paul Montag was endearing as well, though the programme tended to be on the light side.  Sévère has a lovely control over his instrument, finding a particularly clean and exact tone colour, firm but never ‘fruity’, and he is capable of a subtle flexibility in line and expression too. Paul Montag revealed himself as a very alert and conscientious accompanist; sometimes he might have been almost too eager.  In general, both worked very well together.

One always welcomes transcriptions of great music, but how much do we welcome those of pieces that we would not want to hear very often in any case?  The opening piece was a clarinet transcription of Borodin’s early Cello Sonata (1860), dating from the time when the composer was still pursuing his studies a chemist and a full fifteen years before his famous string quartets.  There has always been transient interest in the composer’s pieces from this period: I recall the Vienna Octet years ago taking a fancy to the Piano Quintet and the String Sextet, and recording them for Decca.  Though the writing is often little more than academic, one can perhaps discern ‘Kismet’ just around the corner in some of the more lyrical, cantabile passages.  I found this enjoyable for the most part, both artists taking great care over articulation.  They brought a nice sense of play and charm to the simpler constructions, and added an attractive sensual shading to the lyrical lines.  Still, it is a long work at 25 minutes.

There is always some intrigue over in how Leonard Bernstein started as a composer, and his Clarinet Sonata (1942) was his very first published composition.  While there are clear signs that the work is juvenilia, there is still a pleasant tunefulness in its opening Graziozo, with a bittersweet flavor reminiscent perhaps of Prokofiev or Poulenc.  It moves to some jazzy innovations later on.  I thought the performers brought more character to the work than I had previously noted, giving it sparkle and a good flow, and certainly getting into the abandon of its jazzy episodes.

The Lutoslawski Dance Preludes and the Berg Four Pieces were the more abstract items, and the duo’s control over the often parsimonious and distilled textures was a definite highlight.  From the staccato runs, trills and sustained legato lines in the former to the penetration of the creeping space and texture in the latter, Raphaël Sévère made sure the needed precision and tonal variety were there. I enjoyed the moment when the clarinet ‘shrieks’ in the Berg.  Nonetheless, the absolute highlight for me was Debussy’s brief First Rhapsody, which was just played so idiomatically, with exactly the right charm and playfulness, and control of the sultry, sensual line.

There was an irresistible charm to this concert, even though it was short in duration and the repertoire chosen was relatively slight.  I might have liked to hear the Poulenc sonata, or a more substantial modern American one, or even a more tightly-argued modern English sonata, say, by Ireland, Bax or Howells.  But, I suppose that will have to wait.  There can be no doubt that all three of the duo recitals seen so far have been an absolute success.  Each recital was so different in repertoire, but the talent and the potential of the performers shone through so brightly each time.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015