“Nordic Highlights” virtuosos rise to the occasion

Danish violinist Skow and Norwegian pianist Coucheron impress with viruosic performance

Skow Coucheron Nordic Highlights

Photo courtesy of Julie Coucheron
Virtuosos Philippe Benjamin Skow and Julie Coucheron thrilled their audience at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall with a program featuring Nordic composers.

Rolf Kristian Stang
New York

Featuring two exceptional young Scandinavian artists of note, Danish violinist Philippe Benjamin Skow and Norwegian pianist Julie Coucheron, the “Nordic Highlights” concert on Jan. 30 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, drew compositions from several sources, including non-Scandinavian ones.

During the concert, the performers soared to artistic and technical heights. Commentary throughout, voicing concern for the environment, largely offered by Skow, wove the chosen musical themes together with reflections on nature. Intelligence and virtuoso skills dominated the performance and fully commanded our attention. And yet, things began to feel a bit amiss.

Let us first note that Coucheron, acutely prepared as she always is, was clearly going to be a partner, rather than an accompanist. Her energetic, authoritative opening few bars of the Grieg “Sonata #3 for Violin and Piano” set the music-making off with élan. From her, we would clearly not be hearing politely laid-back, “I hope I’m not too loud” Grieg, as is often the case in performances of his chamber music.

But then came what seemed slightly amiss. Violinist Skow, though well-prepared and very committal, didn’t seem fully warmed-up, nor did his tone seem clean and focused. There were even moments that were not quite in tune. What could this mean? Interpretively, however, he was brilliant, making it all very puzzling to this writer.

Nordic Highlights

Photo courtesy of Julie Coucheron

Of course, between the two able performers on the stage and the program, including a piece by violinist Ole Bull, who, along with singer Jenny Lind and violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini, was one of the first three international music megastars, it was abundantly clear we were in for a musical feast.

But then came the end to the puzzling situation, when suddenly, in the fourth piece, Johan Svendsen’s “Romance, in G Major,” it was as if the sky had cleared and the sun had broken through: we heard an incredibly beautiful, radiant, and ringing sound coming from the violin! I say “we” because at the end of the piece, someone sitting nearer the front uttered a profound bravo to let Skow know that we were attentive and grateful he made it to the heights.

It’s said that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going!” We had just been witness to an instance of that.

To explain: we later learned that Skow had only received his visa clearance at 10 p.m. the night before. One can imagine his worries. The ridiculous circumstances even had him seeking another violinist to take his place. That must have been exhausting, not to mention the pressure.

In addition, the question lingered of whether he would have the joy of embracing the famous 1690 Stradivarius violin loaned to him to play in this concert.

Nordic Highlights

Photo courtesy of Julie Coucheron

As the concert began, the audience sat oblivious to all of this, unaware that the veteran performer was simply plowing bravely ahead, having dealt, first, with the prolonged, drawn-out visa problem, and then having waited, not knowing until the last minute if he would be allowed to appear at all, and share in the glory of playing this incredible instrument.

Suffice it to say, that violin and violinist Skow were meant for each other. So unmistakable were the power and expressive freedom that the two in combination exuded. The audience, clear that it was experiencing something phenomenal, roared as its approval grew from the first piece to the end the program.

As Skow got into this bottomless instrument more and more deeply, letting caution fly to the wind, he and Coucheron gave us an uplifting, rare experience of music’s ability to “zing” us profoundly in the heart. In Coucheron he had the perfect partner; at last in his comfort-zone, he established fiery tempos, which she had no problem at all echoing and matching. Her phenomenal support as Skow danced a bit before the piano, releasing diamonds in tone, nuance, and shimmer, took this writer’s breath away. Again, the audience experienced that being partnered with Coucheron must be as challenging and demanding as appearing with a great orchestra.

What a pity that this amazing duo is not engaged to tour across the country to share what we heard on the evening of Jan. 30. But, of course, for Skow to be able to play the 1690 Stradivarius permanently, there would first be a considerable expense: the $10 million purchase price!

This article originally appeared in the February 21, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.