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Classical music

Review: violinist Iskandar Widjaja plays himself into trouble in Hong Kong debut

Soloist too often seeks to milk phrases for drama, but rather than making the music sound fresh, his wayward style irritates the listener and obscures the big picture; his playing would benefit from restraint

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 November, 2016, 1:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 9:18am

If there is a lesson young violinist Iskandar Widjaja and his listeners can take away from his Hong Kong recital debut, it is that sometimes less is more. From the opening bars of the first work in an eclectic programme, Fritz Kreisler’s Tempo di Minuetto in the Style of Pugnani, it was apparent the 30-year-old has a burning desire to make every phrase appear extemporised. This came off better in some places than in others.

In the Kreisler miniature’s middle section, the rubato he used in interchanges with accompanist Itamar Golan, 46, had a witty effect, the pianist showing himself alert and sympathetic to the mercurial Widjaja, as he was throughout the concert. The violinist began the next work, Cesar Franck’s celebrated sonata, so tentatively as to suggest the creation of a world out of nothing; the same approach worked well in the equally dreamy third movement, Recitativo-Fantasia. In the faster second and fourth movements, however, Widjaja indulged in extreme contrasts and, in the heat of the chase, got into all manner of very noticeable technical problems, from sound projection to intonation to general bow control.

By the middle of the ensuing great Chaconne from Bach’s Second Partita for unaccompanied violin, Widjaja’s hyperbolic way of building up within a passage from timorousness to assertiveness had become predictable and thus irritating, as had his all-too-conscious attempts to milk every phrase for drama. When there are wayward changes in speed, dynamics, timbre and even mood within a single phrase, and when this happens over and again, the audience can hardly see the tree for the individual twigs, much less the forest.

For some reason, things improved considerably after the interval, when Widjaja’s idiosyncrasies became more tightly integrated into the structure of each work, rather than being a surface distraction. Thus, Handel’s HWV 371 sonata, which opened the second half of the recital was played with guileless joie de vivre; Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror) exuded simple tranquillity; Schumann’s Phantasie, Op. 131 (originally a concertante work) had a sense of urgency and purpose; and Igor Frolov’s Concert Fantasia on Themes from Gershwin’s Opera Porgy and Bess could dazzle as the stylish showpiece that it is.

That the two halves of the concert were so different suggests Widjaja makes interpretive decisions on impulse. Although his playing at the City Hall Concert Hall on Monday was at best vital and arresting and at worst patchy and maddening, his eagerness to take such risks is admirable. He could, though, deliver a more cogent performance by exercising more restraint, not luxuriating over passing details, and laying out the big picture in a more straightforward fashion.

Iskandar Widjaja Violin Recital, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. Reviewed November 21