Julia Fischer, the German violinist, makes hard things soft. Her tone has the steeliness of precision, but can be at the same time as gentle as a rabbit’s foot stroked across your cheek. Her phrasing effortlessly cushions lines of music, showing them to best advantage without drawing attention to itself, like pink lighting around a bathroom mirror.
This, at least, is how she sounded in the opening bars of Mozart’s K. 454 sonata, the piece that started her recital at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue on Saturday night, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Once you’ve telegraphed that level of breathtaking mastery, there’s a certain regrouping: Now that you’ve shown you’re at this level, what are you going to do with it?
What Fischer did was either run the musical gamut or remain precisely focused on a cross-section of the repertory, depending on your point of view. Geographically and chronologically, she kept a tight focus: A Viennese half — the Mozart was followed by Schubert’s “Rondo Brillant” in B minor (D. 895) — was succeeded by a French one, consisting of Debussy’s sonata followed by Saint-Saens’s first sonata. Musically, this meant stretching from moments of cool elegance in the Mozart to downright Gothic playing in the Schubert, and from Debussy’s probing of tone and texture and emotion to the good old-fashioned virtuoso showpiece of Saint-Saens. This program shows a lot of range within the established boundaries of the job of Great Violinist, and Fischer rose to the challenge with serenity, or fire, or feeling, as called for.
A musician once said to me that the highest compliment was to have a listener hear a performance and feel that the notes couldn’t possibly have been meant to go any other way. But it can be a challenge for supremely gifted musicians not to sound overly calculated: To get the notes to sound inevitable, one has to create the illusion that one is not, oneself, making them go. Fischer often achieved this, but there were times when she verged on presenting too much control — in the second movement of the Mozart, or in some of the changes of mood and tone in the Debussy, moving with the speed of sun on water.
The Debussy, however, also felt like a departure. It stood out on the program for its emotional vulnerability, extending to a muddiness in some of the lower notes — striking for her, and perhaps deliberate as well, particularly given that this was the last piece the composer ever wrote.
Whereas the Saint-Saens seemed like second nature: a virtuoso showpiece for a true virtuoso. Listening to Fischer and her piano partner, Milana Chernyavska, build up to a fury of intensity in the final movement and then defuse all of the passion in descending, ebbing figures, effectively turning on a dime from orgasmic exultation to butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-your-mouth delicacy, was a study in musical showmanship, in the very best sense of the term.
Chernyavska made an interesting contrast with Fischer, all softness and shadow where Fischer has the clarity of a lightsaber, yet completely in sync with her in such a way that in the Mozart the joining of their two voices, in a sonata written for two instruments as equal partners, did indeed have some of the inevitability to which my musician friend aspired.
I found that the violin cut through the clouds of sound from the piano, but another listener opined that the piano drowned out the violin, and he very well may have been right from where he was sitting. The Sixth and I Synagogue is a lovely building but not an adequate facility for a world-class concert, with uneven acoustics that isolate the instruments, no backstage dressing rooms, and a warren of stairways and halls from box office to auditorium. WPAS seems to book younger artists to perform there, but if the idea is that hip new audiences will be attracted to this downtown venue, it’s disastrously off base. Washington may not be filled with concert halls, but surely we can do better than this.