In 2018, I was in the Albert Hall for the BBC Proms on the evening that the American violinist Tai Murray was the soloist in Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. Like many people, I love that piece, but because it’s performed so often I was pretty sure I knew what to expect from it.
How wrong I was. Murray’s playing was enthralling, and somehow made this very familiar work sound fresh and free, as if I was hearing it for the first time. As if she was improvising it out of the warm air.
So it was with no hesitation whatsoever that I caught up with Murray’s recent lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall, a series which the venue management have kindly allowed to be streamed on YouTube during the pandemic period. She was accompanied by the pianist Martin Roscoe.
Bartók and Brahms were on the programme, but the opening work was a short Mozart sonata in E minor, K. 304. ‘A little gem that isn’t performed that often’ as the Radio 3 announcer Martin Handley described it, in only two movements. It was certainly new to me.
Truth be told, I sometimes find string sonatas a bit abrasive and strident – particularly the more big-boned later ones. In moments where the soloist strains over a thundering piano part, it doesn’t always seem like an ideal partnership. So it was refreshing then to discover this Mozart piece, which shares much of the poignant restraint that Murray conveyed so well in the Vaughan Williams.
As Handley’s introduction also mentioned, it’s thought (but not known for sure) that Mozart may have composed the sonata in the aftermath of his mother’s death. And there is certainly darkness here, with both movements in the minor key.
There’s even a nocturnal quality. The smooth opening theme is quietly announced by the violin and piano in bare octaves. Then comes a faster, agitated reply – but still without any harmony.
What follows is so sensitively balanced, and while Roscoe has barely three notes to sound together, Mozart shows up the redundancy in the enormous anachronism of the Wigmore Steinway. The textures are especially magical in several hushed cadences in the first movement, where a sustained note on the violin is set against little florid melodic figures.
A more affirmative theme appears in the major key, decorated with dancing dotted rhythms that might have been composed for carefree whistling. The exchange of ideas that follows is like listening in to an intelligent conversation – the back-and-forth between Murray and Roscoe is so economical, the music’s turns from severity to jollity so distinctively characterised. Of course, Mozart makes it sound like child’s play.
The second movement is a minuet, and the wistful theme is introduced on the piano so delicately that it could be a music box. The violin takes up the tune with real passion, and a serenely tender major-key section is very touching. But it leads to a brief and unexpectedly emphatic close, which seems to dispel the music’s dreaming.
This dramatic turn adds something of a sense of finality to what is an unusually short sonata. I can only assume that its truncated form goes some way to explain its relative rarity in concert programmes, but I have no complaints. I only hope Tai Murray continues to deliver the unexpected.
Tai Murray’s recital took place on September 17th and is available to watch for 30 days.