Natsuko Yoshimoto & Alex Raineri
Melbourne Digital Concert Hall
Thursday September 23, 2021
Not the best week for a French/Australian entente that has become quite a bit less cordiale. While the Prime Minister writhes and wriggles his way round the truth, hoping that aimless meetings will eclipse his bad faith and ineptness, the world – well, the small part of it that’s interested – looks at the sabotaged submarine deal with a mix of surprise and contempt. Not that Francophiles have always been easy to find in the immediate environment. I remember a parish stalwart in Kew coming up after a Sunday service and asking for more Bach for voluntaries, but certainly ‘none of that French stuff’. And teaching the language (badly) for about ten years didn’t make it any more attractive – to me or the students. Of course, it’s a useful tongue to know, as I found out at the Vienna Opera, the market in Monte Carlo, and the back blocks of Melbourne’s Southbank.
But its main use has been to do with French music, of which I’ve heard and played more than is consistent with the bounds of propriety. Knowing something of the exclusivist culture that produced Perotin and Yves Prin helps in both knowing what to expect and learning to exercise tolerance. So this all-French (well, actual and adopted) hour of great violin/piano sonatas served as a refresher course in marvellous achievement and in witnessing two excellent local musicians at work. Mind you, ‘local’ is a loaded term in Yoshimoto’s case; she has been playing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for the last ten years before coming to Brisbane as the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s co-concertmaster. Her fellow artist Raineri has been a local resident for some time (forever?), running the peripatetic year-long Brisbane Music Festival since 2018 to fine effect.
On Thursday, working from Opera Queensland’s Studio, these artists opened their innings with the Debussy sonata of 1917 which begins with deceptive simplicity even though wheels are turning at a great rate beneath the placid surface. The work sprang into high relief at a splendid burst of energy with the Appassionato 8 bars before Number 2 in the Durand edition, the executants working with fine collaboration across the piece’s ebbs and flows. Yoshimoto exercised a supple rubato throughout, nowhere better applied than when specified five bars after Number 3, but the partnership rose to an attack both crisp and fierce over the last rhetoric-rich final page. Debussy’s Intermede proved to be packed with high jinks and jerks in an individualistic reading that took some liberties, like the violin’s employment of rubato well before it was called for at Number 3, and again before Number 4; perhaps it’s a personal reading of Meno mosso. As a counterweight, the duo’s pliability from the final au Mouvement direction to the violin’s fading flashes was excellently achieved.
A reversion to the opening movement’s whirling crispness shone out in the hectic Finale, Yoshimoto glancing off her top notes in passage-work with an easy grace. Still, the most impressive facet of the partnership came in their rhythmic congruency across pages that sound effervescent, a cycle of explosions and oases, even though the movement is packed with difficulties in shape-moulding and dynamic harnessing, e.g. Raineri’s active underpinning from Number 3 to the shift at Expressif et soutenu, the whole reaching an exhilarating high point in the final 12 clamorous bars.
Where the violinist tended to push hard in this opening work, coming close to vehement scraping in G-string forte moments, she worked for more purity of output in the following reading of Ravel No. 2, initially during the high melodic outline 6 bars before Number 2. But then, the opening Allegretto holds long passages of lean activity, best exemplified by the placidity obtaining around Number 4. Still, the work also erupts in bursts of excitement, like the long series of shuddering violin demi-semiquavers from Number 9 to Number 11, and the multi-level piano activity that surges in at Number 13 and sets the emotional basis for this movement’s luminous, magical ending.
Yoshimoto made us aware of every note in her pizzicato chords during the Blues, as well as producing some hefty glissandi when she eventually went arco. Raineri impressed for his pointillist polish at the key signature change to F sharp, gradually increasing his heftiness until the movement’s first biting explosion at Number 7. I’m not sure the Gs in both instruments came together at Number 12, but the sul tasto slide of a 7th rounded off the experience with just the right dose of soft salt. A few notes dropped out in the piano’s assault on the Perpetuum mobile, notably when the octave work stopped after Number 5, but this movement is hard-going for both players; even when Ravel pits them against each other in canonic activity, the pace for both remains relentless Yoshimoto demonstrated skill and understatement in her pianissimo low-string mutterings at Number 12 and beyond, and the conclusion was a model combination of discipline and excitement.
When it comes to the Franck sonata, you enter a big league of sorts. The emotional canvas is splayed out in the best Romantic tradition, the form exceptionally satisfying, the virtuosity required highly demanding. Both Yoshimoto and Raineri went for big strokes, even when the dynamic level dropped to minimal, although matters seemed a bit shaky at the opening to the initial Allegretto with a thin-sounding D from the violin in bar 6. But as an early illustration of the expansive style of attack, you only had to wait for Raineri’s largamente solo starting at bar 31 to experience the noble breadth of this reading. Of course, the piano has much of the attention in these pages and this executant made a feast of his three exposed points, at the same time making allowance for Yoshimoto’s smoothness of line, as at bar 71’s dolcissimo.
Both musicians took to the D minor Allegro with obvious relish after the lilting restraint of the sonata’s opening gambit. Raineri tended to treat his energetic main theme flurries beginning at bar 4 in an unexpectedly four-square manner, the rhythm too regular for the material, which might have been a question of beat-emphasis. Speaking of stressing the point, the working from both back to stage 1 that begins at Bar 94 came across with unexpected determination at bar 94; not enough build-up but straight into the dynamic required for bars 96 and 100. At the same time, this urging resulted in several splendid passages, as in the soaring arch from Yoshimoto at bar 172 where also I became aware of the boomingly rich bass notes of Raineri’s Kawai, both executants hurling themselves into the devil-take-the-hindmost presto build-up to the jubilant D Major ending.
Yoshimoto let Franck’s recitatives speak unvarnished in the Recitativo-Fantasia, verging on overkill with some forceful bowing in exposed passages. But this meandering movement enjoyed a voluble airing, particularly in that long build-up from bar 71 to a dramatic climax at bar 105, replicated in the last movement. Many commentators regard this set of pages as the sonata’s high-water mark but the first canon of the final Allegretto still strikes me, after many years, as a musical blessing for the simplicity of its opening and the open-endedness of its resolution. Raineri set a brisk tempo, which I prefer to ladling on the sugar right from the start, even if Yoshimoto showed that she can do just that with a splendid leaning-in entry at bar 52. The stretto that the piano kicked off at bar 87 gave notice of what was coming up but without stealing too much thunder. One of the few errors I encountered in this hothouse maelstrom came in a piano solo at bar 127 when Raineri was involved with the composer’s false-canons on the way to a resolution (of sorts) into that blinding C Major cascade at bar 169.
If anything more needed to be demonstrated, this finale gave illustration after instance of how well these players fed off each other equally effectively in moments of stress and calm. Yes, this sonata lends itself to slathering around the point with lashings of ad lib, real and potential, but here was an interpretation that worked brilliantly in passages of mutual dependence, right up to the jubilant last 21 bars, complete with the minute pause on Yoshimoto’s high E beginning bar 232. This completed a memorable recital – almost ideally secure, insightful, emotionally consistent and a testament to the enduring excellence of French serious musical art which will doubtless endure, no matter what else takes place – like contemporary external boorishness.