Sergey Malov (violin), Ashley Brown (cello), Michael Houstoun (piano)
(Michael Hill Violin Competition and Chamber Music New Zealand)
John Psathas: Gyftiko
Beethoven: Piano Trio no.5 in D Op.70 no.1 ‘Ghost’
Ysaÿe: Sonata no.4 for solo violin
Franck: Violin Sonata in A
Wellington Town Hall
Wednesday, 13 June 2012, 7.30pm
The 17-centre tour, of which this concert was a part, was included in the awards Malov received as winner of the Michael Hill Violin Competition last year. It provides a welcome opportunity for the rest of New Zealand to hear his talents in person; only those in Queenstown and Auckland heard them in 2011.
Prior to the concert, Ashley Brown interviewed Malov in the Town Hall’s Green Room, during which he paid tribute to the organisation and arrangements for the competition, which he enjoyed, not least the experience of staying with host families in both centres. He admitted that he was just inside the age limit for the competition, so had more experience than other competitors, and had already won other competitions.
He paid tribute, too, to Michael Houstoun, whom he described as a national treasure, and as a person so experienced in chamber music that he could be very flexible, and as well as offering suggestions, could adopt ‘my sometimes crazy ideas’.
He spoke of his other instruments, the viola and the violoncello da spalla. Malov also explained the Psathas work (for solo violin), which he said he enjoyed playing. The title meant ‘gypsy’, and the work was improvisatory and non-classical, written especially for the violin competition. He described it as wild, without clichés. In a radio interview, he said that it was not appropriate to play it with a beautiful sound all the time.
It began with left-hand pizzicato interspersing the bowed lines. The technical demands and violin techniques included the use of harmonics, double-stopping and very fast passages. The gypsy fiddler was never far away. Malov was very much on top of the work, and gave a riveting performance.
Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio received its nickname from a member of the public at the first performance, in reference to passages in the second movement. Malov described it as joyous and wild, and shocking in its key changes, so not all is calm and beautiful. It is one of Beethoven’s most compelling and involving works of chamber music. A composer-contemporary of Beethoven’s called it ‘… of great power and originality”.
The opening unison passage revealed the beautiful tone from both stringed instruments. Then, typical of Beethoven, we were straight into the soul of the work. There were impressive dynamic contrasts, portraying changes of mood. The development of the first movement (allegro vivace con brio) and its themes was full of subtlety, but also drive. Each iteration of the noble theme was exquisitely played. Phrasing was completely in accord between the performers.
The largo assai et expressivo second movement features the slow, spooky build-up that is the origin of the trio’s nickname. Low grumblings on the piano and slow, quiet notes on the strings seem to hint that drama is to come. There is a gradual increase in tempo and volume. However, though the intensity increases, there is still no release from the slowly building tension. It is almost anguish that is expressed before slow chords bring the end of the movement.
The finale is not explosive, but a good-humoured lively presto. It is like a jolly conversation between three equals. The music becomes very busy, but remains lyrical. There are many fast passages for piano, brought off with immaculate accuracy, sensitivity and imperturbability by Houstoun. The numerous climaxes are always followed by gentle episodes before the end is reached – was Beethoven teasing us with false endings?
Ysaÿe was the most noted violinist of his time (1858-1931). He had superlative skill, and a vast reputation. He took up conducting in later life, and composition; he was known as the pioneer of twentieth century violin playing, and composed in a number of genres, but principally for the violin.
His solo sonata no.4 was inspired by Bach solo sonatas, and this is very apparent in every movement: Allemanda, Sarabande and Finale. While the opening was not particularly Bach-like, the movement soon proceeded into a style echoing the great baroque composer, with chords and simple progressions. This apparent simplicity was deceptive; looking at all the hand positions needed by the violinist to play the music (which he did without a score), one appreciated the technical difficulties. The movement ended in unison.
The second movement opened with pizzicato, then a lengthy passage of double-stopping unfolded as two melodies played against each other. Ethereal harmonics and pizzicato towards the end gave the dance-like movement a delicate quality.
The final movement was fast and virtuosic, and again very reminiscent of J.S. Bach. It was almost a perpetuum mobile for much of its length. A couple (but only a couple) of notes were not quite on the spot, in this demanding work. Despite the tempo, Malov had great variety of timbre and dynamics through a great range of pitch (greater than Bach would have employed).
Franck dedicated his sonata, written late in his life, to Ysaÿe. Both were Belgian-born. The opening movement (allegretto) featured very lyrical playing, with nuance and a great range of tonal colours.
The allegro second movement begins with the deeper, more sonorous notes of the violin, sometimes sounding like a viola. There is much prestidigitation for the pianist.
This work is not a favourite of mine; I have heard it too often, so that it no longer speaks to me, nor sounds inspired. But Malov and Houstoun invested it with a degree of charm and depth. Gentle passages were very light, yet well controlled.
The recitative of the third movement opened in questioning mode, and gradually worked towards a reply in the fantasia part of that movement, with its slow start then strong theme.
Finally came the allegretto poco mosso, with its return to the theme of the first movement, varied and elaborated in canon between the instruments. There’s no doubt that Malov and Houstoun played the sonata superbly well.
For an encore, Malov came back with his viola, which he played in a solo Capriccio by Vieuxtemps, another Belgian, who was responsible for getting Ysaÿe started on his career. It was pleasing to hear the different instrument, which sounded sombre after the sweetness of Malov’s violin. The piece featured chords and double-stopping.
To say that Malov is a sensitive, imaginative and immensely accomplished violinist is perhaps not the most remarkable thing. What is remarkable is the way in which he, Michael Houstoun and Ashley Brown formed a superb team. Three programmes are being performed on this tour, which is unusual for a visiting artist; in three centres the Beethoven trio is scheduled.
Malov’s playing was marked by purity and sweetness of tone, in addition to his complete command of the instrument, and apparent enthusiasm for his art. He should have an eminent career. There was unanimity among the people I spoke to after the concert as to the enjoyable programme and the high standard of playing we had been treated to by Sergey Malov and Michael Houstoun.