Violinist Frang provides belated thrills with Prokofiev in underwhelming Boston debut

January 24, 2013 at 12:36 pm

By David Wright

Violinist Vilde Frang made her Boston recital debut Wednesday night at the Longy School’s Pickman Hall, presented by the Celebrity Series.

For the first three-quarters of her local debut recital Wednesday night, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, Vilde Frang played her violin at the level of a well-coached conservatory student, and one wondered what all the fuss surrounding her was about.

Then the Norwegian violinist and her collaborator, pianist Michail Lifits, swung into Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 94b, and one found out.  The Prokofiev performance was everything their earlier renderings of Mozart, Fauré and Brahms hadn’t been: vital, committed, insightful, and loaded with character.

Frang and Lifits began the evening at the Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall by reviving the unlamented old custom of warming up for a program of Romantic favorites with a bit of carelessly played Mozart.  The Sonata in F major, K. 377 was a last-minute substitution for its more familiar litter-mate, K. 376 (also in F), suggesting that the artists felt they had something special to say with it.

If so, it was hard to tell what that was.  The duo’s phrasing was generic, swelling and dwindling without much regard for the sense of the music.  The violinist’s rather nasal, dry tone was often overwhelmed by Lifits at the nine-foot Steinway with the lid up, an imbalance that persisted for much of the evening.

Some relief from this precious, powdered-wig Mozart came in the last movement, where the players successfully conveyed the quirky dialogue between tender and boisterous moods.

Fauré’s Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 13 began with the violin struggling to be heard over a clatter of piano arpeggios that the composer meant to sound like surging waves, not Dancer and Prancer on the roof.  In this movement and the Andante that followed, Frang partly overcame her limitations of tone to show an instinctive grasp of Fauré’s rhapsodic swells, large and small.

The sonata’s scherzo was an impressive, if humorless, demonstration of fast staccato playing. The episodic finale lacked a narrative thread, and the violin’s attempts to introduce a softer, sweeter note were often run over by the noisy piano.

Known as a brainy composer in an instinctive age, Brahms was nevertheless captivated by popular music.  Hungary’s so-called gypsy music was the jazz of the nineteenth century, fierce, funny, syncopated, born of deep suffering, and Brahms had high fun with it in his Hungarian Dances, originally for piano four-hands and then arranged for every conceivable combination of instruments.

On Wednesday, Frang and Lifits offered a studied-sounding performance of three dances from the set, Nos. 11 in D minor, 17 in F-sharp minor, and 2 in D minor.  All the elements of the “Hungarian” style were in place: the rubato, the slides, the big ritardandos, the wild frenzy in the fast parts.  All that was lacking was any feeling of real tears or laughter.

By this point, the number of empty seats in the small hall had gone up noticeably.  Those who stuck it out, however, were rewarded with a gripping performance of the Prokofiev sonata, a composer whose dry, hard-driving style, with undertones of sentiment, seemed to suit these musicians best.

The evening-long imbalance between the instruments was remedied by Prokofiev’s writing for them: the violin (a flute in the original version) brilliant, fantastic, and assertive; the piano mostly simple and spare, in a strong supporting role.

More importantly, the players captured each of the first movement’s shifting moods and strung them into a coherent story that ended satisfyingly in the eloquent, tapering coda.  The scherzo was as light, zany, and Cubist as one could wish, contrasting with a vivid, dream-like middle section.

The Andante of this extroverted sonata was just a brief interlude, but in it Frang revealed unsuspected resources of tone, controlling her bow better than before and producing a clear sound that ranged from slender-silky to rather lush.  The high-stepping finale had loads of cheeky energy, from which the players pulled back quite effectively for some tender moments before driving on to a solid, assertive close.

After the Prokofiev, Frang and Lifits returned to the stage three times to acknowledge applause, but, satisfied with great success, played no encore.

The next classical presentation of the Celebrity Series of Boston is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. The next recital in the organization’s Debut Series at Pickman Hall is guitarist Miloš Karadaglić on February 13 (sold out) and 14.  celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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