Forty years of French sonatas

Siew Yi Li and Beatrice Lin presented three sonatas for violin and piano composed by French composers in the 40 years spanning the dawn of the 20th century.
Siew Yi Li and Beatrice Lin presented three sonatas for violin and piano composed by French composers in the 40 years spanning the dawn of the 20th century.PHOTO: ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY

REVIEW / CONCERT

LES SONATES FRANCAISES

Siew Yi Li (violin), Beatrice Lin (piano)

Esplanade Recital Studio/Monday

The name of the concert as well as the generous programme booklet (in French and English) suggested that this was to be a recital devoted to French sonatas. And, indeed, it was.

A Swiss-trained Singaporean husband-and-wife duo presented three sonatas for violin and piano composed by French composers in the 40 years spanning the dawn of the 20th century.

But in the middle came something of a musical surprise.

The recital began with probably the best-known of all French violin sonatas, composed by Debussy in 1917. He was dying of cancer at the time and the music has a distant, reflective character.

Siew Yi Li and Beatrice Lin conveyed these elements well and their performance had an overriding sense of restraint.

There was, however, a niggling question mark hanging over that level of restraint. Was it a deliberate interpretative idea or a consequence of some weakness? The question was answered in the next sonata.

The French-language programme notes claimed that Gabriel Pierne's Violin Sonata of 1900 was receiving its first performance in Singapore. If true, it would not be a surprise, as Pierne was so highly regarded as an orchestral conductor that his work as a composer has been overlooked. Yet, he wrote music of great charm, elegance and distinction.

These were features which, again, were well brought out in this charming and elegant performance.

However, Pierne's Sonata also has its moments of high drama (in the first movement), intense beauty (in the second) and ecstatic joy (in the third) and none of these really came across.

The fault lay not with the performers, but with the unappealing piano Lin was given to play.

Lacking any sustaining power, the gorgeous melodic lines of the second movement sagged as they moved from note to note, while its limited dynamic range meant that it sounded as monochrome as it looked.

Possibly, Siew had felt restrained on his violin by the piano's limitations, but with the Faure Sonata, dating from 1876, he finally let rip.

Giving the audience plenty of stormy outbursts and rich lyrical expressiveness, he lacked complete technical discipline - something rather obvious in an indelicate third movement - but it certainly brought the music to life.

Even Lin managed to get some grudging response from the piano.

And that surprise?

Following the interval, during which the largely French audience caught up with election news on their phones, the concert's promoter, Serine de Labaume, stood up and sang.

Her choice of two songs by Poulenc and Saint-Saens maintained the nationality and timeline of the programme and involved Siew and Lin. But while de Labaume's opulently vibrating soprano gave them a luxuriant feel, they would have been more impressive had they been a little more assiduously prepared.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2017, with the headline 'Forty years of French sonatas'. Print Edition | Subscribe