Elmar Oliveira is in town. You can probably feel it in the air. The fiery Portuguese-born violinist is here for five days. Friday was only his first day here and already he has burned up the concert hall.
His recital at Lippes Hall in Slee Hall began with Mozart's Sonata in B flat, K. 378. Even on the surface, it was the most gripping Mozart I can recall. You had Oliveira and pianist Robert Koenig, two tough-looking guys in head-to-toe black with glasses and shaved heads, glowering into the music. They were not here to bring out its prettiness, that was for sure.
Once, observing Oliveira playing with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, I thought of him as playing Extreme Violin. This recital reinforced that image. Throughout the Mozart, Oliveira never looked at the audience. Instead, concentrating, he played every note as if it were his last. In the first movement I wondered if they were not careful enough to smell the roses. But by the slow movement I was ready to swoon. This is such rich, romantic music -- it sounds like Brahms -- and it is time someone brought that out.
Schubert came next, the Rondo Brillant in B Minor, Op. 70. This is a tough, make-you-or-break-you piece, the kind of piece by which violinists judge one another. Oliveira braced himself as if going to war. Then he threw himself into it, assertive and militant. Before long his bow was in tatters. Two strings broke at once. Oliveira managed to break off one to get it out of the way, and dove back into the music. He played with gypsy passion, making the most of the music's surprises, which included false endings and hairpin turns. The piece had a raw drama. There were occasional grinds, whistles and imperfect notes, as if to say, that's life. It was a stunning performance, and the big crowd -- which included many of the area's top string players -- gave it a standing ovation.
The Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia for violin and viola brought a change of pace. Usually in a piece like this I miss the piano, but such was the balance between Oliveira and violist Sandra Robbins that the performance was completely absorbing. A passage that called for both to play pizzicato was enough to make you laugh. They were that focused and synchronized.
The recital ended with Richard Strauss' Sonata, Op. 18. This music makes me think of Strauss operas, and in a way the violin becomes the singer -- declarative, ardent, passionate. It was perfect for Oliveira's no-holds-barred style.
Koenig rose to the challenge of Strauss' virtuosic, bittersweet piano writing. The notes sparkled. At one point, the music sounded casual and murmuring, like a conversation. Again, the slow movement was a highlight, with the heart-melting melody showing off Oliveira's rapturous intensity.
The second standing ovation of the night won an encore, Heifetz's arrangement of Rachmaninoff's "Daisies."