I had been anticipating, as I trundled over to Southbank and found my seat in the auditorium, something of an unconventional performance. I did not figure in bell slippers. Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Sol Gabetta chimed together as they hopped across the stage, embarking upon a warm and jaunty ‘Tambourin’ from Leclair’s Violin Sonata in C, Op.5 No.10. It was a pleasant surprise, and one which immediately set a general mood of mirth.
I became familiar with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja earlier this year, primarily from the recording of her flamboyant sprechstimme for Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Later I saw the barefoot, bravura soloist at the Proms, rendering Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 via traditional Hungarian folk. Less familiar to me was cellist Sol Gabetta, who is a long-time collaborator with Kopatchinskaja.
The repertoire was as much a demonstration of the duo’s virtuosity as it was of the works themselves. This was a series of excerpts and short pieces, ranging from the Baroque to the present, punctuated by a Ravel sonata and Kodály’s Duo. There seemed to be no particular theme – romantic and abstract, playful and sombre played alongside one another – except to challenge both performers and audience.
In short, Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta were brilliant: in technique, in emotion, and imaginative interpretation. There was plenty of bow-slapping, screeching strings and seemingly effortless playing – put to particularly good effect for Widmann’s compositions – or ethereal lightness and flawless beauty when needed. It was the kind of performance one would expect from a virtuoso soloist, but perhaps not in unison. The instruments were harmonious, neither dominating the other: the duo were well-matched for intensity. In several moments, Gabetta used a pause or break to pluck out a loose string that had gone whirlwinding around her.
A memorable piece was the Presto in C minor by CPE Bach, adapted for violin and cello. Left and right hand were split between the duo, both played entirely pizzicato. The effect was theatrical, even operatic, as if the violin and cello were engaged in repartee. Likewise between the duo, seated together, with Kopatchinskaya exaggerating the final note for comical melodrama.
There was a touch of informality to the night, as if we were attending a large (and, considering the brutalist Queen Elizabeth Hall, strange) salon. At some point, Kopatchinskaja informed the audience that – despite multiple rehearsals – Scarlatti’s Sonata in G ‘did not work’. I didn’t catch the reasoning. Apparently Sol liked the piece, so the audience was asked if they wanted to hear it anyway. I wonder about the outcome had there been a convocation of anti-Scarlatti-ists in the audience.
Unsurprisingly, the compositions written for Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta’s instruments were also the richest. Ravel’s Sonata for violin & cello isa work of technical demand and exacting counterpoint. It was a tour de force for the duo, a storm of frenetic energy and utmost precision; especially so with Kopatchinskaya’s extreme pizzicato in the fourth movement. Dhipli Zyia by Xenakis – a folk-inspired composition with an evocative rhythm – was exhilarating and thunderous, and a personal favourite.
Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, written upon the outbreak of the Great War, was disadvantaged by being both the longest and the penultimate piece of the night. Less so for the instrumentalists than the listeners I thought. Nevertheless, I felt that Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta invoked Kodály’s sorrowful, harrowed melodies very well in a touching finale.
For the (resounding) encore, the duo recreated a slight, unnamed piece written by Kopatchinskaja and dedicated to Gabetta. It was a little bit punk – amorphous, thumping, and paused mid-flow for a synchronised growl from the duo. A funny way to end a concert that might have left purists underwhelmed, but perhaps the sort of thing to attract an audience with more curiosity and less strictures.
I left feeling a little rueful that there wouldn’t be a recording. As it turns out, this event was the midpoint of a European tour to promote Sol & Pat (2021), the duo’s album with Alpha. The track listing is almost the same as the live repertoire, with some additions. It’s a fine studio production: polished, and so losing some of the energy and eccentricities that I heard in Southbank.
At the time of writing there are a few tour dates left, with the last stop in Florence on the 6th of November. Don’t book a flight or make a road trip; but if you happen to be around, it should be an evening well spent.