Sergey Malov and Michael Houstoun – capturing the ebb and flow

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

SERGEY MALOV (violin/viola) and MICHAEL HOUSTOUN (piano)

SCHUBERT – Sonata in A Minor “Arpeggione” D.821 / JS BACH – Violincello Suite No.3 in C Major

SCHUMANN – Violon Sonata No.1 in A MInor Op.105 / PAGANINI – “La Campanella” (finale of Violin Concerto No.2)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Friday 22nd June 2012

Rarely does a concert begin more poetically than when Schubert’s music is involved – or so it always seems at the time. The opening exchanges between piano and, in this case, viola, of the intriguingly-named “Arpeggione” Sonata brought their own resonance and warmth to the somewhat ungrateful acoustic of the Lower Hutt Little Theatre, thanks to both pianist Michael Houstoun’s and violist Sergey Malov’s lyrical, deeply-felt playing.

Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata was so-called because of the music’s original commission for the so-named six-stringed instrument, one rather like a viola da gamba but fretted like a guitar. Its repertoire is today nearly always played on either a viola or ‘cello, though I have heard of moves afoot to reintroduce the beast for our interest and, hopefully, pleasure.

In particular, Malov’s viola sound had that quality shared by the playing of all great instrumentalists, at once a rich, mellow quality, but one that would sharpen its focus at moments along the musical line, indicating the strength of the thought behind the music-making. And no better a chamber-music partner here, than Michael Houstoun, whose sensitive, yet equally-focused playing seemed a perfect mirror for Malov’s intensities.

What struck me in particular was the intimacy of the musical discourse in places, the readiness of both players to draw their listeners in – but never self-consciously. One always felt the sensation of a composer’s thoughts and dreams flooding the places we were taken, a full gamut of expression, with nothing denied the chance to have its say. My notes are filled with comments such as “so spontaneous-sounding” and “wondrous flexibility of phrasing”, folllowed by “dreaming and introspective” and “communicating sheer enjoyment” – all impressions that defy analysis, but were foremost for me in the concert’s experience.

Following the Schubert, the Bartok Solo Violin Sonata was scheduled, but to our surprise Sergey Malov re-entered still carrying his viola. He asked the audience’s pardon, but said that he thought, after consultation with Michael Houstoun, that the hall’s sound with such a near-capacity audience would not serve the Bartok well, and so he proposed to play for us instead one of JS Bach’s solo ‘Cello Suites on his viola. Having enjoyed the Schubert, I was glad to have more of the viola’s attractively mellow voice, and agreeably pleased to hear how eloquently the instrument in Malov’s hands traversed the figurations of one of these works – in fact the Third Suite in C Major.

This was music-making which underlined the idea that, in Baroque music, the instrumental timbres and colours for different works seemed to matter far less than the player’s basic musicianship in bringing these things to life. At no point did I find myself thinking, “Oh, that comes off better on the ‘cello”, due to such care regarding note-values and overall phrasing being taken throughout by the player. Not that the approach was a literal “cross every “t” and dot every “i”, as Malov’s playing had a strongly-projected sense of freedom and spontaneity with whatever he did. Predominantly rhythmic movements were deliciously and pliably pointed (I enjoyed the occasional ambiguity of the music’s propulsion in the third movement), and Malov relished the near-strident “pulling the cat’s tail” couple of notes which Bach uses to induce tension during the last of the movements.

For the second half we moved slightly upwards in our listening, to the violin – Malov gave us Schumann’s First Sonata in A minor, a lovely performance from both violinist and pianist, rich, dark, agitated and unquiet throughout the ever-striving opening. Schumann writes such passionate melodies that often remain open-ended, heightening the longing for fulfillment, a super-sensitivity, but expressed in an entirely human way. Again I was taken with Michael Houstoun’s sensitive playing, ever alive to what his partner was doing and acting and reacting accordingly.

Though there’s lyrical warmth aplenty throughout certain moments, other episodes In Schumann’s chamber music can sound somewhat dour, with near-obessive repetition risking monotony. Such wasn’t the case here, as violinist and pianist brought so much light and shade to their voicing and interactive phrasings. And they brought out all the Allegretto second movement’s whimsical qualities, taking time to allow the brief German forest-echo sequence some resonance, before the opening’s reprise. The finale, though serious and purposeful, was kept nimble and buoyant, the dialogues between violin and piano beautiful synchronized, with the players bringing out singing lines in the midst of great energies.

The programme’s final listed item was Paganini’s “La Campanella”, taken from the finale of the composer’s Second Violin Concerto. This was a kind of extra-musical treat, with the composer most obviously out to entertain, delight, astonish, stupefy and generally gobsmack his audiences by requiring all kinds of instrumental pyrotechnics from his soloist. Occasionally there was some music, the famous theme, no less! – but it tended to be forgotten amid the breathholding double-stopped harmonics, the left-handed pizzicati, and the double-stopped legato phrasings ascending and descending. Michael Houstoun orchestrated his part wonderfully in places, but generally provided a solid foundation for Malov’s (and Paganini’s) violinistic flights of fancy.

After these heady entertainments, Sergey Malov seemed to rethink in part his decision to not attempt the Bartok Sonata, because as an encore he played part of the work, which, after the technical coruscations of the Paganini, actually fell more gratefully that one might have expected on our ears. I think this was perhaps because he had by this time “played in” both himself and his audience, to the point where he felt he could give us anything – our listening had been ‘fine-tuned” most satisfactorily, or so it seemed.

The exerpt from the sonata had a furtive, “pursued” aspect at the start, with the violinist having to jump back and forth between registers in places. When muted, the strings took on an even more shadowy, haunted character, a compelling world of sound thrown into relief by the soulful, pleading mute-removed lines which vie with the scampering music at the end. By the time he had finished we all wished he had in fact played the whole Bartok work after all – in retrospect, at the end of the concert would have been an ideal place because of that “playing-in” phenomenon which would have worked similar wonders with any demanding piece of modern or near-contemporary music.

So – a wonderful concert, one I will enjoy for ages to come, long after those actual sounds have died away. How marvellous to have heard a string player of such calibre, and with a pianist who brought his customary focus and beautifully appointed technical finish to a partnership of equals.

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