Review of March 9th Concert

Supported by the Countess of Munster Musical Trust, the 9th March 2022 Letchworth Music Concert at Howgills was exceptional on all levels. With 24 hours’ notice the pianist, Kaoru Wada, Ionel Manciu’s pianist wife had to withdraw for family reasons. On the morning of the concert the pianist, Gamal Khamis, stepped in to save the day. (He had accompanied the oboist, Amy Roberts, in November). Beethoven’s Third Sonata for Violin and Piano was substituted for the Fifth (‘Spring): fortunately the Prokofiev and Franck were retained. And what superb performances! Gamal, who has garnered many international plaudits arrived on the afternoon of the concert and rehearsed solo until 7.15 pm. Once the recital began, it was evident that they had fused as a duo as if long term partners.

Ionel Manciu was born in the Republic of Moldova, where his younger brother and parents still reside. The Russian military invasion of Ukraine to the north lent an ominous overtone to the evening, particularly in the Prokofiev. A winner of the Trondheim International Chamber Competition, and a guest-leader of the Netherlands Philharmonic, and with Kaoru a BBC3 young Generation Artist, Ionel eloquently introduced the programme.

The Beethoven opus 12 Violin Sonatas were written c.1798, dedicated to Salieri. The ‘spirited’ first movement of the Third in E flat showed their composer’s mastery of ‘sonata form’: key themes set out (‘exposition), developed and recalled, often with a tweak and a tailpiece or coda. Ionel described the middle movement (ii) as an Italianate operatic aria ‘con molto espressione’. The concluding rondo (iii) took a simple tune, which developed into a powerful fugato, with the violin and piano figuratively chasing each other providing reassurance of a happenstance partnership ready to confront the challenges of the two major programmed works.

Ionel told us the opus 80, First Violin Sonata of Sergei Prokofiev (1901-1953) had had a long gestation, from 1938-1946, encompassing World War II and emergence of the Soviet Union and ‘Iron Curtain’ bloc. It was commissioned by and dedicated to the celebrated Ukranian violinist, David Oistrakh (1908-74), who gave its premiere (ironically two years after the premiere of the 2nd Violin Sonata). The sonata received a Stalin Prize in 1947.

It’s possible to hear an Oistrakh performance with pianist Lev Oborin on You Tube, recorded later in life, rewarding but lower voltage than achieved by Manciu/Khamis. Their opening andante (i) was dark and passionate, introducing an eerie slithering scale, characterised as ‘wind passing through a graveyard’, which recurs in other movements. The allegro brusco (ii), founded on viciousness, was full-powered, the piano almost jackbooted against a raucous violin. The andante (iii) presented a glimmer of hope in its G string melody, soon curdled in despair. Likewise (iv) allegrissimo, posted an optimistic start, again rebuffed with the slithering scales and sinister pizzicato. The immediacy of the performance (and the challenges of the current international context), received deservedly rousing applause.page1image1636800


Prokofiev died on 6th March 1953 (the same day as Stalin). The 1st and 3rd movements of this sonata were played at the composer’s funeral.

After the usual ‘dry’ interval, came the Violin Sonata in A by Cesar Franck (1822-1890), commissioned by the Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931): his 6 solo violin sonatas are in Ionel’s repertory. Franck’s sonata was written to commemorate Ysaye’s wedding in 1886: Ionel told us that two movements were played at the ceremony! The sonata has a ‘cyclical’ form, based on significant chords and harmonies introduced by the piano at the beginning of each of the four movements. Critics found it analogous to Franck’s formidable organ technique (reflected in the Recitativo-Fantasia 4th movement), which also related to Ysaye’s style. Straitlaced Mme Franck detected a sublimated passion. The sonata received a superb performance, with the exacting piano of Gamal expertly complementing Ionel’s fiery delivery of the violin part. This concluded an outstanding recital, made the more special by the external factors, and rewarded by sustained, appreciative applause.

Mervyn Miller, Letchworth Music Committee