Violinist Hristo Popov and pianist Per Enflo have an extensive performance history as a duo, including many recordings and recent performances of all ten Beethoven violin sonatas. Eastern Europe was the focal point of their recent concert, with music from Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary.
The first half of the program consisted of two works by the Bulgarian composer Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978). Vladigerov was one of the founding fathers of modern Bulgarian music and many believe him to be the most influential Bulgarian composer ever. Chant, from the Bulgarian Suite, Op. 21, No. 2 opened the concert. This work, by a 28-year-old Vladigerov, is a good example of the composer’s evolution towards a national musical idiom based on folk material. The violin part has an improvisatory quality throughout. Mr. Popov played with sensitivity and his singing tone in the high register was unfailingly exceptional. Mr. Enflo was an attentive partner throughout. The rippling piano passagework over the pianissimo trill of the violin and gradual fade to final silence were striking. It was an auspicious start.
The earlier Violin Sonata in D Major (Op.1) is unabashedly romantic in its tonal language and form. It is a work that owes much to the Russian tradition, especially to Tchaikovsky. Mr. Popov navigated the rapid changes in moods in the opening Agitato movement with confidence. The second movement’s long piano introduction and extended solo in mid-movement allowed Mr. Enflo a starring role. The jaunty final movement was played by the duo with energy and panache in a stylish ending.
The second half opened with the Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op.25, by Georges Enesco (1881-1955). Subtitled “Dans le caractère populaire roumain”, this is an expressive, melancholic work presenting challenges that are not immediately perceived by the average listener. Pianist and violinist are both “treated” to fiendish difficulties in what could be called “high-risk/low reward”- not an enticing prospect. Mr. Popov conveyed the lament of the first movement, the haunted dreams and poltergeist-like sounds of the second movement, and the grotesque, mocking march of the finale with intelligence and consummate skill. It would be so easy for a lesser player to lapse into over emotive despondence and turn this work into a mishmash of cheap effects better suited for a silent film soundtrack. This was a performance that separated the men from the boys, so to speak. It was the highlight of the concert, and it was especially gratifying to see the audience react with such enthusiasm.
Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Sz. 87, from Béla Bartók ended the program. Dedicated to the legendary Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, the Rhapsody uses the slow–fast (lassú—friss) paired movements of the popular Hungarian dance verbunkos. The Lassú is folk music given Bartók’s characteristic treatment and was played by Mr. Popov with charm. The Friss movement continues the folk element, with one tune having a passing resemblance to “Simple Gifts”- a la Bartók, of course. The duo built momentum to a frenzied pitch. A temporary respite in the form of bell-like tones on the piano set the stage for a winding up of the momentum once again. Mr. Popov played with fire, and the final cadenza-like passage had true demonic flair. It was an outstanding performance from start to finish.
Hristo Popov is a musician’s musician. Eschewing any empty showmanship, he invests his considerable skills in giving performances that place substance over effect. It might not always be exciting to watch, but whatever “excitement” the eyes have been denied, the ears have not. He has a worthy collaborator in Mr. Enflo and it would be a pleasure to hear this fine duo in the future.