Leila Josefowicz, violin
John Novacek, piano
Wigmore Hall, London
Shostakovich: Violin Sonata Op. 134
Schubert: Rondo brilliant in B minor D. 895
The hollow man. Shostakovich was demoralized and spent after suffering a serious heart attack in 1964. The politically craven Symphony No. 12 and the politically courageous Symphony No. 13 had dangled him between the two poles of his nature. A visit from Benjamin Britten revived his spirits in 1967, and two years later Shostakovich produced one of his late masterpieces, the Violin Sonata, a severe work based, after Britten’s instigation, on the twelve-tone system. But as with Agon, which is twelve-tone but sounds every note like Stravinsky, the sonata’s gray, spare lament could have come from nobody but Shostakovich. It exhausts an audience, even the redoubtable Wiggies (that is, the faithful patrons of Wigmore Hall) but when a committed soloist plays it, a soul beats loudly inside the enervating despair.
Leila Josefowicz was the perfect choice. She made her Carnegie Hall debut at 16 looking like a gamine with Rapunzel blonde hair. Today, at 32, she retains her milkmaid skin, but one shouldn’t be fooled, even when she appears in flowing blue and champagne silk. In her fierce attack and rigor, Josefowicz is like no one else, and her specialty is contemporary music, not drawing-room dainties. She’s the panther of the violin: lithe, elegant, and deadly. Unlike many of her peers, Josefowicz doesn’t insist on never making an ugly sound; she reserves beauty of tone as a sudden, welcome interjection when the going gets too nerve-fraying. Such a style, in the lineage of Szigeti but with better technical control, allowed her to confront the misery of the Shostakovich with pitiless clarity. The work is dedicated to David Oistrakh, as a sixtieth-birthday present (Oh look, some rusty barbed wire. Thanks!). The two outer movements are measured and spare, but to test the soloist there is a fiercely driven Scherzo, perhaps the most caustic and desperate Shostakovich ever wrote, and later a series of double stops with trills. Josefowicz proceeded without fear or flaws.
At the premiere the pianist was Sviatoslav Richter, which is reflected in the taxing accompaniment, fully equal to the violin, especially in the passacaglia-form finale, where the two trade and decorate the theme alternately. Here, we had the excellent John Novacek, whom I can unhesitatingly call one of the best accompanists I’ve ever heard. He had prowess and individuality. Violin and piano did not relax for Schubert’s late, idiosyncratic Rondon brilliant, which filled the second half of a short noontime program. The title, which promises a light salon diversion, was attached by someone else. The work strides forth with declamations worthy of Beethoven and then proceeds to hop from key to key trying to make us guess how far the next leap will be. The violin part is full of flourishes, put in for its dedicatee, a Czech fiddler known as “a second Paganini,” but Schubert doesn’t weave them in decorously. They seem manically improvised. The program notes told us to expect charming melody, but for once Schubert abandoned that gift. One gets the impression of a stark, aimless ramble at high energy without the anchor of sweet tunes.
I’d compare the strange style of the Rondo brilliant to the equally unfathomable Quartet no. 15. It could use a more yielding reading than Josefowicz gave. She pounced, and although that was an intriguing approach after the Shostakovich, the result was, for me at least, too punishing. I hadn’t heard her live, so I came away with a high opinion of Josefowicz, whom I would rank with Daniel Hope as a violinist with a mind. The violin is often said to imitate the human voice; she makes it imitate human thought. Only next time, a touch less torment, please. We’re only Wiggies.