Dazzling and Daring: Vilde Frang at the Wigmore Hall

Edvard Grieg Violin Sonata No. 1 in F, Op. 8
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Violin Sonata in E-flat, K. 481
Witold Lutosłowski Partita for violin and piano
Richard Strauss Violin Sonata in E-flat, Op. 18

Vilde Frang violin
Michail Lifits piano

For Vilde Frang, maintaining her identity is of utmost importance. So instead of the expected solo Bach works or sonatas by Brahms or Franck, at last night’s concert at the Wigmore Hall audiences were greeted by Grieg, Lutosłowski, and Richard Strauss (Schubert’s Fantasia in C was also programmed, though this was replaced last minute by Mozart).

Picture: Sonja Werner

Picture: Sonja Werner

None of these composers are strangers to the standard concert repertory, but the works on last night’s programme are less familiar. Grieg’s First Violin Sonata is often neglected in favour of the more dramatic No. 3 in C minor, and Lutosłowski’s Partita for violin and piano is overshadowed by its orchestration. Similarly, Strauss’ chamber works are outshone by his massive works for orchestra. Frang, then, is not a performer to rely on easy crowd-pleasers.

Nor does Frang need to be too concerned with losing her identity. Her sound has a soulful resonance that I suspect can only be innate. This she used to her advantage, particularly in the sonatas by Grieg and Strauss, which are packed with powerful melodies. Her best moments were when she was given full reign, when there was nothing preventing her sound from shining.

Frang’s sound is her own, and, at last night’s concert, so was her stage personae. There is a fine line between being reserved or removed, and unfortunately Frang’s stage presence meant she came closer to the latter. When she was not playing, rather than appearing engaged she would stare vacantly outwards. Was she lost in her own thoughts or wishing she were somewhere else? Either way, the resulting effect was not one of intimacy. Instead it gave the impression that the audience’s presence was unwelcome.

Frang’s indifference towards her audience was sometimes reflected in her playing. Her dazzling sound and immaculate ability were givens, but a considered performance was not. In the second movement of Grieg’s Sonata, she failed to make the music sound fresh. The final movement was taken as such a speed, which, though impressive, meant that the music was treated as something only to get through instead of something with meaning. And what I suspect was meant to be a playful exchange of extremes between light and heavy in the final movement of Mozart’s Sonata lacked any sense of humour.

Lutosławski’s Partita for violin and piano saved the evening. There was simply no time for Frang to be anything but engaged. The work is in five movements. The second and fourth are aleotory interludes, meaning that there is an element of chance left up to the performers. This forced Frang and pianist Michail Lifits to pay attention to what they were playing. But they were compelling in the other movements too. Lutosławski’s Partita is drastic and frequently violent, and Lifits enjoyed emphasising the percussive harshness of his instrument. Meanwhile Frang was ferocious. She wrung out all the drama from the third movement’s held notes and her high passage in the fifth movement was chilling in its implausible sweetness.

There is little danger of Frang losing her identity. Her personality is so big that it threatens to stand in the way of the music. But perhaps this is not an entirely bad thing. Frang certainly injected her personality into the performance. And whilst I did not warm to her impersonal and distant approach, she can at least claim that this performance was her own.

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