On Stage: Violinist Alina Ibragimova Shows Care & Control at Wigmore Hall

Set designers the Quay Brothers add mystery to the mix


How much of a role does setting and atmosphere play in forming our response to a performance? Are we likely to be less persuaded by a performance if the venue is shabby or acoustically poor, or more persuaded if the surroundings are beautiful and grand? These questions were at the back of my mind as I listened to Alina Ibragimova play a recital of unaccompanied violin works in an unusual setting: Wilton’s Music Hall, probably the last extant music hall in London.

It was perfect place for a set design and staging provided by the Pennsylvania-born Quay Brothers (Stephen and Timothy).

Wilton’s dates from 1858 and has remained unchanged in the intervening years despite the heavy bombing of its East End location during the Second World War and, more recently, increasing gentrification. It’s easy to see why Wilton’s peeling paint, exposed brickwork, creaking sounds, and lost-in-time atmosphere appealed Ibragimova and her collaborators, cutting-edge filmmakers the Quay Brothers (the event had also been presented earlier in the summer at the Manchester International Festival).

The Quay Brothers have a reputation for making strange and haunting films and for collaborating with musicians in everything from videos to operas. Having had some prioracquaintance with their spooky modus operandi, I half-expected that tiny dolls would drop down from the balcony mid-performance or that Ibragimova would suddenly vanish in a puff of smoke.

But there was no visual trickery, at least in the first half, other than a huge shadow projected behind Ibragimova as she gave an intimate, almost conversational, reading of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. This was the first performance of this piece I’ve heard that made me notice the link to the great cantatas, especially the exquisite vocal agony of “Ich habe genug.” The Bach followed Berio’s Sequenza VIII, a solo voyage through centuries of violin styles all compressed into one demanding piece. Relentless stuff, and for the most part Ibragimova, looking delicate in a silk dress that matched her pale coloring, was more than up for it.

After intermission, it was the turn of the visual artists to come to the fore. Ibragimova, now in a red dress, positioned herself on a corner of the stage to play Bartók’s Solo Sonata while the Quay Brothers film was projected on a screen above her head. Organists at a silent film screening often improvise music to what they see on the screen. Here it was the filmmakers who were improvising toa set score. (How pleased Schoenberg would have been by this overturning of convention—his insistence on writing a complete score for a movie before it was even filmed didn’t win him too many producer friends in Hollywood.)

The filmic tale the Quay Brothers spun out of Bartók’s music centered on a Mahler-like composer whose labors are distracted by an opening window, a woman pouring water, the rustling of a tree, and an image of a child in a coffin (Kindertotenlieder, anyone?). I hasten to add that this explanation is entirely speculation on my part, for the Quays are not big on obvious narrative. Mystery, hints, insinuations—that’s what they prefer.

Ibragimova, standing below the flickering images, played with care and control; she has no need for flailing theatrics, even when Bartók at his most folksy or ferocious. Her calm, thoughtful approach is persuasive.

There was Quay Brothers-like moment at the end of the evening. The final applause for Ibragimova’s Bartók faded away yet most of the audience remained seating. Were they expecting an encore? There was a simple answer: had the venue not run out of programs, the audience would have known that the Biber Passacaglia from the Mystery Sonatas (another “mystery” in the mix) had already been played for us during the intermission, as we drank our beer and ate our ice creams and marveled at the fact that this great aging hulk of a building has survived—and that the exquisite playing of this young Russian violinist would turn out to suit it so well.

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