Mia Cooper, Katherine Hunka, Ioana Petcu-Colan & Helena Wood at St Ann’s, Dawson Street, Dublin, on 19 April 2017
Tonight four violinists, the leaders or associate leaders of the four main orchestras on this island, come together and give a concert. Apparently it was composer Ian Wilson’s idea, but you can’t help wondering if other forces helped put these four women together on stage. As concertmasters they ordinarily lead a large group of players, setting the tone, playing any violin solos, and generally showing the way: the first conductors were, after all, band leaders, occasionally beating time with their bows. It’s intriguing to see how these characters will work together as an ensemble, and the lack of hierarchy certainly seems to have a liberating effect.
Katherine Hunka says at one point “you’d have to really like violins to be here”, and in its way the programme takes us through violin culture. The fiddle is a capricious beast, identifying with both the wild excesses of gypsy playing and the fearsome discipline of classical traditions, and we encounter a bit of both. Working from the ground up, Mia Cooper begins alone, with Rodion Shchedrin’s ‘Balalaika’, a mischievous take on the Russian folk tradition, written for pizzicato (plucked and, in this case, strummed) violin. She’s soon followed on by the other players, and in different pairs they work through eight of Bartók’s 44 Duos, dances in the guise of teaching exercises. Mia returns to finish the set (in the 44th duo, ‘Transylvanian Dance’) with Ioana Petcu-Colan, the two of them sharing the folk-song material with relish.
Helena Wood joins them for the first of two Capriccios for violin trio by Friedrich Hermann (Ioana, Katherine, and Helena play the other one), music of absolute refinement and verve, given magnetic performances here. The energy and virtuoso flair of both combinations is tremendous, and the material fascinates, with the music of the second capriccio evoking Schumann fantasies or even Wagner’s Rhinemaidens.
The group finally convenes as a quartet for the premiere of Ian Wilson’s Quattro Stagioni, a work inspired—like his earlier Winter Finding—by Cy Twombly’s quartet of giant paintings on the four seasons. A tour-de-force for the four players, the piece explores the limits of texture and technique, and is given a riveting performance.
After the interval, the quartet returns for Telemann’s atmospheric Concerto in G for four violins, before Katherine—on viola this time—joins Helena for Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia. This arrangement of Handel’s set of variations (from his seventh harpsichord suite) is played superbly, with a real sense of rapport between the two players. After this, the Quartet for Four Violins by Grazyna Bacewicz follows, the only work by a female composer on the programme. This is a real find, and its elegant neo-classical style and haunting colouration is given vivid advocacy by these players.
To close, the jammy arrangement (by Paul Frost, based on Skip Martin’s big-band version) of Paganini’s famous Caprice No. 24 takes things into a completely different direction, its broad humour making it perhaps more appropriate, at this stage, as an encore piece. All the same, it reflects the enthusiasm and sense of fun that has been evident all night long. This is an evening of giddy pursuits, infectious good humour, and stunning brilliance. Touring Ireland to 29 April, if these four women come to your town over the next week, just go and hear them.
Rodion Shchedrin: Balalaika
Béla Bartók: selection from 44 Duos, Sz. 98
Friedrich Hermann: Capriccio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 2; Capriccio No. 2 in G major, Op. 5
Ian Wilson: Quattro Stagioni
Georg Philipp Telemann: Concerto for four violins in G, TMV40:210
Johan Halvorsen: Passacaglia
Grazyna Bacewicz: Quartet for four violins
Niccoló Paganini (adapted by Paul Frost, after arrangement by Skip Martin): Caprice in A minor, Op. 1 no. 24