Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Stodgy Bach but stunning Vivaldi from Ibragimova and AAM, Wigmore Hall 29 February 2012

Biber, Bach, Vivaldi: Academy of Ancient Music, Alina Ibragimova (violin and director), Wigmore Hall, London 29.2.1
Biber: Passacaglia in G Minor from the Rosary Sonatas
Bach: Sonata in E Major BWV1016
Bach: Concerto in A Minor BWV1041
Vivaldi: Concerto in D Major RV234
Vivaldi: Concerto in D Minor RV565
Biber: Battalia
Bach: Concerto in E Major BWV1042

Alina Ibragimova is often described as a violinist who is equally at home in both modern and period instrument worlds, but it isn't often we get to hear her in Baroque mode. When playing the violin in its modern configuration, she is one of the instrument's finest living exponents. Her tone is slight, but always incisive. Her intonation and phrasing are beyond reproach. And, most significantly, her bowing is agile and light, breathing life and energy into every note she plays.
So how do gut strings and a baroque bow affect these exceptional qualities. Well, that probably comes down to your personal preferences, but to my ear the magic of her playing survives, but is not enhanced by baroque conventions. The baroque bow is a little more cumbersome, and the gradations in her dynamics aren't quite as fine, nor is her forte sound as sweet. But in piano passages her playing is as attractive as ever, and the roundness of the gut string sound adds something of value. The way that she ends long notes is a particular pleasure, when she uses a modern bow, and she makes a real virtue out of long and gradual diminuendos, always precisely controlled and always transfixing. Again, those qualities survive the move to a baroque bow, and as such she offers something genuinely new and interesting to period performance. The question is, does period performance offer anything new or interesting to Alina Ibragimova?
The first piece on the programme, the unaccompanied Passacaglia from Biber's Rosary Sonatas, offered plenty of material for reflection on the subject. Although the movement was written as the conclusion to Biber's great cycle, it is a great way to open a concert, at least it is when played with the verve, passion and musicality that Ibragimova injects. The whole scordatura issue tends to mean that violinists treat Biber as primarily a composer to show off with. Not Ibragimova though. She knows that we know that every note of this music is safely under her fingers. So instead of a bravura show-piece, we are offered a solo movement filled with a wide-ranging colours and textures. And of course, they are the colours and textures of a baroque violin. But all those Ibragimova trademarks are there: the light breezy tone, the sculpted but carefree phrasing, the dynamic shifts that range from the sudden to the very gradual. And that last note was absolute magic; Ibragimova had the capacity audience hanging on the end of her bow as she gradually diminuendoed to a perfectly controlled ending.
The title of the concert was 'Rise of the Concerto', and the programme was apparently curated to demonstrate how the Classical violin concerto evolved out of a diverse array of baroque roots. Or was this just an excuse to programme the best bits of Biber, Vivaldi and Bach's violin music? The three composers, all of whom were violinists themselves, certainly got a good airing, although the performances did more to highlight their differences than their similarities. In the cast of Biber this is little surprise, his music doesn't sound like anybody else's. But Vivaldi and Bach were treated very differently to each other, especially by the Academy of Ancient Music, and there was never any doubt as to which we were hearing at any given time.
Bach was introduced with a sonata for violin and harpsichord, the E major BWV1016. Although not credited as such, harpsichordist Alistair Ross was the real soloist here. His playing never suggested any sense of accompanist's restraint, and his instrument was more than sufficient to fill the Wigmore Hall. The lightness of Ibragimova's tone also allowed the harpsichord to shine through, although she was not shy about adding dynamics into her own part. The limited vibrato in her violin playing, another period performance trait, became clearly apparent here. It is such a shame to hear her playing under to such extreme aesthetic proscriptions, especially when her vibrato is so subtle anyway. But in its (almost) absence, her intonation and articulation showed themselves to be absolutely spot on.
Both halves of the concert ended with Bach concertos, but neither shone in the same way as the Biber or the Vivaldi that they followed. The Academy of Ancient Music fielded a large string section of some 13 players. That's a lot to get on the Wigmore stage, especially with a soloist (admittedly slight), a harpsichord and a theorbo. In the Bach, the sheer quantity of players overwhelmed. There were no problems with the intonation or ensemble, but what should have been sprightly contrapuntal textures sounded heavy and chordal, simply for the number of players. Ibragimova and Ross attempted to compensate with fast tempos and clipped phrases, but to no avail.
More impressive were the Vivaldi concertos, RV234 and 565, which is ironic as they are clearly inferior works. But the lightness of Vivaldi's orchestration, which is all isolated runs and filigree decorations, allowed the ensemble to take flight, despite their numbers. Ibragimova's 'baroque' tone also came into its own in Vivaldi's music, and her famously fluid bowing proved the ideal medium for these Italian solo lines.
Biber made a return in the second half with a comedy number. His Battalia is a depiction of a fight, complete with sound effects and some perambulation around the hall from the violin and cello soloists. This composer is nothing if not unpredictable, and his raucous contribution to the second half was about as far removed from the civility of his earlier Passacaglia as you could imagine.
But fine as the orchestral playing was this evening from the AAM, the best of this concert had already passed by the time they first took the stage. That solo with which Ibragimova opened the concert was a stunner, elevating Biber's fine Passacaglia almost to the status of Bach's famous work in the same genre, of which she is surely one of the greatest exponents. The Academy of Ancient Music achieved an impressive coup getting Ibragimova to tour with them. The trouble is she completely upstaged the lot of them.

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