Špaček and Houstoun in delightful Wellington concert

Josef Špaček (violin) and Michael Houstoun (piano)

Violin Sonatas by Martinů (No 1), Janáček and Beethoven (Op 30 No 2) and solo Violin Sonata in E, Op 27 No 6 (Ysaÿe)

Wellington Town Hall

Monday 5 July

This concert in Chamber Music New Zealand’s evening series was co-promoted with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra: part of the first prize in last year’s Michael Hill International Violin Competition.

One has to confess that, far from offering a brilliant young violinist – still only 23 – a platform for performance that he might still be struggling to establish, the benefits are surely entirely in the other direction. For winning the contest obliged a player already with an international career, to play in Motueka and Whakatane, Waikanae and New Plymouth: hardly necessary for one who has already played in many of the world’s famous halls and with many of the great orchestras and conductors.

Špaček is a fully-rounded and superbly schooled musician, a case where a more ordinary mortal wonders, on reading that he studies at the Juilliard School with Itzhak Perlman, what on earth even a Perlman might have to teach him. When he can bring forth music from the fantastic galaxy of cascading notes that litter Ysaÿe’s solo sonatas. For this was the first time I have heard one of these post-Paganini extravagances brought to life as a complete and beautifully formed musical gem.

His encore, Henri Vieuxtemps’s riotous handling of Yankee Doodle (Souvenir d’Amérique, variations burlesques sur ….) was another example of fireworks in which he turned a perhaps vapid show-piece into an exhilarating, thrilling farewell offering. . 

To follow the Isaÿe piece with Beethoven’s beautiful and somewhat melancholy Sonata in C minor was, first, the mark of a perceptive and original programme builder, but more significantly, a demonstration of an artistic maturity that the Isaÿe might not have proved. He moved through each of the four movements with such an unerring feeling for style and musical mood. In the Adagio cantabile, for example, there was his febrile, urgent thrust, with its dark Mephisto quality, against Michael Houstoun’s elegant piano which laid out restrained, sombre and immaculate textures that supported the violin’s subtle, long breaths. How nicely they handled the little fanfare-like cadences that punctuated the later phase, pretending to presage the close, with straight-faced, Haydnesque wit. But the real close, when it came, was disarming and gorgeous. Here in the finale was playing, again, of an essentially Beethoven melody that was quite without indulgence or pretention, the very essence of honest, insightful musical performance. 

The first half was a celebration of his own country. Janáček’s sonata, on the strength of this performance, is an under-exposed masterpiece, not of modernist complexity, but of richness and singularity; Špaček, together with Houstoun’s highly idiomatic contribution, understood and enhanced its unique beauties while relishing the characteristic intervals that make Janáček’s music distinctive.

For me the Martinů was the greatest delight however: if not quite the equal of the Janáček, it is a delightful example of Martinů in his French/ragtime/neo-classical phase. And Špaček gave full colouring to the contrasts between the meandering, somewhat angular solo violin, and the ragtime rhythm and the solid swing that the piano’s entry suddenly brought about. It is an interesting case of the two instruments representing sharply contrasting styles, which yet creating an entrancing whole.



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