Despite a relatively modest audience at the Melbourne Recital Centre last Tuesday, the audience response was anything but for Baiba Skride’s Great Performers recital in a program of Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Shostakovich. Skride’s musicianship speaks directly to the listener as deeply grounded and ripe with nuance. There is no sense of flashy entertainment for its own sake. Indeed I imagine some audience members might have found the evening a little light on show(wo)manship. For the most part this was a cohesive and honest collaboration between Skride and Australian pianist Daniel de Borah. I have heard her perform before, as a finalist in the 2000 Joseph Joachim Competition in Hanover, and found her sense of brevity and style impressive then as now.
The opening work, Mozart’s 1778 Sonata in E minor K.304 was a delight and this listener never tired of hearing the many iterations of the opening theme, luminous and clear. Technically excellent ensemble playing from de Borah tended at times to dominate the acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall whilst spiky bow articulation from Skride was hard to match, flowing in to the delicately balanced moods of the second movement Tempo di Menuetto. Skride’s bow technique is magical, eschewing extraneous flourishes and is a testament to her less-is-more aesthetic.
Continuing into Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op.73 (transcribed by the composer from the clarinet and piano original) Skride and De Borah captured the spontaneity of these vignettes, although I wondered more than once why they chose to widely ignore Schumann’s tempo markings. Marked Zart und mit Ausdruck (Tenderly with expression), the opening movement whisked along at a cracking pace at nearly 120 beats per minute instead of Schumann’s more thoughtful 80. Balance between violin and piano was perfectly cordial and during the fleeting triplet section we heard a bipartisan commitment to elastic phrasing. This freedom continued into the second and third movements, the latter in particular capturing the underlying unrest and emotional jousting of Schumann’s marking Rasch und mit Feuer (Quick and with fire).
In Brahms’ late reworking for violin of the E flat Viola Sonata (finished 2 years before his death), Skride proved her gift for intuiting the overall architecture of each movement, expertly using tonal colour to reflect the harmonic inventiveness therein. Some exquisite dolce playing from both performers was a highlight of the opening movement, the second movement Allegro appassionato bringing flair. Skride’s playing is neither lacking in fiery extroversion nor rough, but rather radiates drama within measure.
If the rapprochement was growing in the first half, it was firmly established in the second with a wrenching performance of the Shostakovich Violin Sonata Op.134. Skride and de Borah expertly managed the climactic moments as well as the introspective, particularly with de Borah’s unfailing support at the most vertiginous corners. The emotional core of the evening, this interpretation boiled the music down to the very essence of bleak. The stillness of Skride’s violin part and a final foreboding pizzicato weighed up the Russian despair perfectly.