Jennifer Pike was BBC Young Musician of the Year for 2002, and raves have followed from every British critic, it seems. Now just 21, she presents her first solo recital, aided by exceptionally clear, natural sonics from Chandos, an generally fine pianist in Martin Roscoe, and a violin with a compelling sound (a 1708 Goffriller that brings up images of dark honey). None of this support would matter without evidence of a strong musical imagination, and Pike has it. Her version of the Debussy sonata grabs the listener with its vitality and quick-witted changes of tone. The gypsy element is brought out with flair, and altogether you can't take your ears away for a moment. Pike's fresh, animated approach really wakes up this music, which she approaches without a trace of French languor or over sophistication.
Whereas the Debussy doesn't call for a pianist who is particularly Debussyan (the accompaniment isn't written in the difficult, atmospheric style of the Preludes, for example), Ravel's sonata requires more -- the piano often stands out, and its lines are definitely in the sparkling, spare idiom of Ravel's piano music. The movement that stands out for its playfulness and witty ennui -- if there is such a thing -- is the second, marked Blues (Moderato). Pike isn't as erotic as she could be, much less slinky, and her pianist lacks just the right finesse. We're not in a Left Bank cabaret inhaling secondary smoke, which is where the music is set. Pike gives a musical reading, but there's a lot more sex appeal in the version just released by Janine Jansen on Decca.
Since the point of this program is to group the three most famous French violin sonatas on a single CD, it ends with the Franck sonata in A major, written for Ysaye in 1886 and long a showpiece for the most rhapsodic romanticism that a violinist is capable of. I wish that Pike had attacked this music as freely as she did the Debussy, but the score brings out tasteful restraint instead. Roscoe's pianism sparks the turbulent second movement Allegro, but Pike only comes along halfway. The third movement, marked Recitativo-Fantasia, gives the violin a chance to be a singer improvising a tender vocalise. Here again I felt that Pike was holding back, although everything she does is musical, and she builds impressively in the second, more passionate half of the movement. (In the same subdued style, listen to the mesmerizing Sergey Khachatryan, for deeply moving expression the recent version from Vadim Repin.) The finale, which releases us into pure, soaring lyricism, is also held back a touch.
So my overall impression is of a gifted, instinctively musical performer who can deliver some moments that are ear-catching but who is held back by restraint just as often. I hope her adventurous side wins out as her career unfolds.