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5 December 2008

Natsuko Yoshimoto and James Cuddeford - Violin Duo

Sydney // NSW // 23.11.2008

Natsuko Yoshimoto and James Cuddeford Image: Natsuko Yoshimoto and James Cuddeford  
© Bridget Elliot

Stepping away from their roles with Grainger Quartet and Sydney Soloists, Natsuko Yoshimoto and James Cuddeford made the most of tonight's extra breathing space. Harrison Birtwistle's Duets for Storab proved an inspiring choice to open the performance; nestled within its six thoughtful, considered duets were elements that would arise in each of the other pieces. The six duos were originally conceived and composed for flutes, providing a game in this premier performance on violin in listening for how the flutes might have tackled the pieces. I – Urlar opened with a single note plucked three times, passed from one violin to the other in response, then repulse. II – Stark Pastoral was a morose counter, finding fluid feet early but reversing, regressing to a stammer.

III – Fanfare with Birds was more urgent, the two violins now at cross purposes, while IV - White Pastoral was a melancholic return, yet not without a glimmer of hope. The cat and mouse of V – From the Church of Lies had the violinists again trading notes, before they closed out with VI – Crunluath, returning some familiar thematic material from the opening duo, long drawn notes overrun with short sharp bursts – Cuddeford's almost trilling violin here most evocative of a flute.

The world premiere of Mary Finsterer's Spherica I made its celestial intent clear from the start, the masterful playing drawing the most from the harmonics created by the cycles or 'spheres'. There was a sparkling clarity to the notes haunted by a disconcerting scratching, scraping shadow. A rare wander into a lower register stood out, reverberantly thrumming with a renewed gravity. We were soon back in the upper reaches, harmonic fireflies flashing by. There was no obvious crescendo or climax to the piece as such, but a crucial final breath; no supernova burst, rather a white dwarf sighing its last. These fine parameters focused our listening for the most minor of shifts, fluctuations that would often barely register, lost in a 'bigger picture'.

The two movements of Andrew Ford's Lullaby and Fire Dance were composed four years apart, written for his violinist friend Tor Frømyhr. The lullaby scraped delicately yet confidently into being, its generous intentions made quite clear from the outset. Speaking in one voice, the violins were tethered by a shared purpose, echoing the sweeping lines. Traces of folk music lent the piece a more sonorous than somnolent feel, the lilting quality to the opening giving way to a vibrant, verdant middle, before a slower final passage finally turning in for night, embracing gentle slumber.

In stark contrast, Fire Dance blazed straight out of the blocks, jigging and burning with irrepressible energy. There was a sense at times of duelling fiddles, closing out cheekily with a handful of slides down the strings, flaring and dispersing in a flash.

James Cuddeford's own Concealed Waves, in memory of Tsunami victims took a more sombre turn to close out the first half of the program. Having grown up with both music and the ocean at the centre of life, I'm always curious to hear attempts to musically evoke the sea. Debussy's La Mer is perhaps the most obvious touchstone, but one of the most successful examples emerges outside the classical canon, Dirty Three's Ocean Songs, with Warren Ellis on violin.

Cuddeford opened with a brisk back-and-forth bowing, evoking the build-up of waves and establishing a foreboding tension. A dynamic shift down in register and tempo took the piece into a trough before rising again, Cuddeford's higher notes and broader seasick steps cut through by Yoshimoto pealing off urgent siren sounds. There is always danger, when attempting to evoke a specific event or natural element, of stretching for too literal an interpretation. While the overall thrust of this piece was strong, there was a sense that musical nuances available to the duo form played second fiddle, as it were, to the broader brushstrokes applied in trying to recreate the emotional impact of such a powerful and unspeakable tragedy.

Returning from interval, Cuddeford treated the audience to a richly hewn rendition of György Kurtág's Signs, Games and Messages for solo violin. Lightly playing with minor dissonance, the opening piece was straightforward, the second more identifiably Hungarian with a gypsy edge. The restrained playing, however, reflected the writing and there was not too much in the way of flamboyant flourishes – pared down to simple expressions, deeply felt and solemnly carried through.

For Luigi Nono's 'Hay Que Caminar' Sonando, with Yoshimoto and Cuddeford parted at opposite ends of the stage, communication proved key. From their relative isolation, the performers were suddenly more exposed: their gestures had to cross and somehow fill the gulf. The Italian composer's spatial play forces usthe audience to question our own role. As the musicians shift around, at one point moving up into the audience, the listener has become the third point of a triangle with the two separated performers. We're invited to listen to the music as sound, but also as communication, as a shared, tradable entity.

As Yoshimoto took her place up alongside the audience, Cuddeford returning from a post at the rear of the hall to the stage, the skeleton of the performance was laid bare. One ear, so close to the violin, was hearing the mechanics of the bow on strings, the attack, every scrape and pop, while the other ear was taking in the distant, polished thread to which we're more accustomed. Despite this being the lengthiest piece, the unusual delivery kept us listening intently, carrying us right through to the delicately handled fade to nothingness that closed out a night of wonderful music, played with a special melding of precision and heart.

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Benjamin Millar is a Sydney-based journalist, writer and photographer. He works as a journalist and editor for a stable of community newspapers.


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