Concert review: Lee Shi Mei and Lim Yan display close to perfect chemistry on Brahms

Singaporean pianist Lim Yan (left) and violinist Lee Shi Mei. -- PHOTO: SEBASTIAN LEE
Singaporean pianist Lim Yan (left) and violinist Lee Shi Mei. -- PHOTO: SEBASTIAN LEE

Lovers of violin music could not have gotten a better start to the new year. The first two chamber concerts of January are violin and piano recitals, soon to be followed by the Singapore International Violin Competition within a week.

Lee Shi Mei, 2nd prize winner of the 2007 National Violin Competition (Artist Category), opened accounts on Saturday with an ambitious recital of all three violin sonatas of Johannes Brahms with pianist Lim Yan. The concert, Brahms: The Violin Sonatas, was performed at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

These are relatively mature works by the German, which are closely linked with his Lieder. Lee gave short preambles to each of the sonatas, and followed up with performances that highlighted their innate lyricism. The duo began with the Second Sonata In A Major (Op.100), arguably the lightest in the trilogy.

Her consistently singing tone was a delight, and this was maintained throughout the entire concert. Clearly she understood the phrasing of its seamless lines, and was in a close and attentive partnership with Lim, whose piano part was denser but perfectly balanced in ensemble.

Alternating between pensiveness and playful asides in the slow movement, and confidently striding in the finale's broad melody, they gave the performance the emotional depth the work demanded. This continued into the meatier First Sonata In G Major (Op.78), which scaled further heights of passion and expression.

Lee explained how she felt closer to this sonata, and the playing showed. There is a tautness in its use of themes, united by a "Rain motif" (also derived from a Brahms' song), a nervous little motif in dotted rhythm which recurs in the work. These moments were keenly brought out, culminating in the smouldering intensity of its finale which came to a surprisingly quiet but sublime close.

The shorter second half comprised the Third Sonata In D Minor (Op.108) which was darker in mood, but never lacked rays of sunshine which characterised Brahms' autumnal output. The radiant glow generated in the slow movement was a case in point, such was the warmth and nobility of the playing, contrasted with the spectral flitting rhythms of the mysterious third movement.

All stops were pulled for the dramatic and fiery fourth movement, where violinist and pianists vied neck and neck as first among equals. The chemistry was close to perfect as the cycle reached its red-hot conclusion. Two encores came in Brahms' Scherzo In C Minor, from his impetuous youth, and the lied Wie Melodien Zieht Es (Like Melodies It Moves), which was quoted in the Second Sonata.

Totally unplanned was a third encore, when pianist Lim improvised the Happy Birthday song from the opening bars of Brahms' Op.100 as an impromptu gift to Lee. One hopes that this duo's survey of the three Schumann violin sonatas would not be too far away.