You Heard Them Here First!

Duo BirringerWe are used to the Milverton Concert Society consistently coming up with world-class performers at their Friday concerts, but the first concert of the 2017/2018 season had the added bonus of being the English debut of the Duo Birringer from Germany. Esther (piano) and younger sister Lea (violin) both started playing at age three – Lea went on to study in Salzburg, Esther in Hannover, but although they have separate careers, their close rapport when playing together was magnificently evident in their Milverton programme.

They started with Grieg’s 1865 Sonata in F, and after the two sombre opening piano chords the first movement was launched with great élan by Lea. Her phrasing was exquisite and she had wonderful control of rubato and dynamics. This was fiery and impassioned playing from both but beautifully controlled and articulated. The wistful opening bars of the second movement moved seamlessly into the more declamatory sections and the folk trio passage in the middle was full of brilliance. The balance between the two instruments was exemplary and the final pages of this movement were performed with great panache.

In the finale, the very short fugal passage led into the brilliantly written conclusion – the music sounded abandoned and wild, but these two had everything firmly under control. Overall this is a rather episodic work, with many variations of mood, but Lea and Esther bridged all of the changes with great aplomb and this was wonderful music making.

In Liszt’s two Elégies, transcribed from piano solos, both players excelled. The first, with its wistful semitone phrases gave Lea the chance to show her impeccable double-stopping – the ascending trills at the end were also lovely. The second Elégie has the more unusual harmonies and tonality, and significantly explores the lower register of the violin – here there was just an occasional hint of roughness in Lea’s playing, but in fact this was not out of character with the music and did not detract from my enjoyment. Again, the final trills were superb.

After the interval they played the three Op. 22 Romances by Clara Schumann. The partnership between the two players was exquisite, nowhere better shown than in the third piece. Here, Esther was magnificent, the piano writing is relentless and technically very demanding. While she was showing her mastery of the piano part, Lea was floating effortlessly on top with wonderful variations on a simple melody. This was a brilliant showcase for a very under-rated composer.

To end the evening we heard one of the masterpieces of the violin sonata repertoire, the 1886 work by César Franck. In the first movement, there is actually very little writing for the two instruments together – each is given their own space and both Lea and Esther excelled.

The second movement is turbulent and contains some ferocious writing for both instruments, but honours go to Esther – she played the demanding piano part with sheer bravura, and deserved the respite of the more reflective mood of her role in the third movement. In this movement the violin part becomes more and more impassioned and Lea showed never a sign of strain, her technical assurance allowing her to become truly emotionally involved in the music.

The finale contains the best-known melody from this work, played in canon and swapping between the two instruments as it progresses. The central passage reminded us of the exciting second movement and then the opening theme returned in various tonal and rhythmic guises to take us into the joyful final pages.

The applause was long and thunderous – there was no way we were going to let them go without an encore. This came in the form of the first of Shostakovich’s four Op. 34 Preludes, a spiky, insouciant piece with an amazing couple of bars of double-stopping where it seemed that two tunes were going on at the same time!

A wonderful English debut by two very talented musicians has once more got the Milverton concert series off to a flying start. I eagerly look forward to the rest.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 21/10/17