The violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja is currently the focus of an Artist Spotlight at the Barbican. By her often explosive standards, the latest concert in the series promised to be a relatively staid affair – a recital with the pianist Joonas Ahonen built around two Beethoven violin sonatas, each of them preceded by 20th-century music. But as always, some extraordinary, charged playing ensured that the performances were anything but sedate.
Schoenberg’s Phantasy Op 47 began the concert. It’s one of the late pieces, like the String Trio, in which Schoenberg seemed to recapture some of the freewheeling expressionism of his early atonal works, and it’s a musical world that Kopatchinskaja inhabits instinctively. Webern’s Four Pieces Op 7 followed, the briefest of miniatures, each just a wisp of music, and all projected with just as much expressive power as the Phantasy before them.
The performances of the Beethoven sonatas didn’t shrink from emotional extremes either. In the second of the Op 30 set, in C minor, Kopatchinskaja’s playing was full of ferocious effects – fierce staccatos, steepling crescendos, sly portamentos – interspersed with moments of almost ghostly, vibrato-less quietness. There was an edge-of-the-seat danger about it all, with intonation sometimes teetering too, and the Kreutzer Sonata Op 47 (which had been preceded by Morton Feldman’s Webern-esque Piece for violin and piano from 1950) predictably received the same treatment, only if anything even more intensely.
It was dazzling stuff, if not for the Beethoven purist perhaps, and encores were inevitable. The first of them, directly following the Kreutzer, was Die Kreuze, the 14th movement from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, in which Kopatchinskaja delivered the sprechgesang recitation as well as adding the final violin codicil. She assured us that the second, Adagio molto semplice, a gently melancholic lullaby, was a world premiere, but refused to reveal who had written it until after she had played it, asking for suggestions from the audience as to who the composer might be. It turned out to have been by the 17-year-old György Ligeti – how Kopatchinskaja had come upon it was not revealed.