Successful violin and viola duo reveal rare Mozart and well-known Halvorsen

Carolyn van Leuven (violin) and Sharon Callaghan (viola)

Duos by Mozart and Halvorsen’s Passacaglia after Handel

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 8 March, 12:15 pm

The names of the two performers at this lunchtime concert should no doubt have been familiar to me, as they have been on the Wellington scene on and off for a long time; both had played in the NZSO. Both have lived and studied overseas and now work in other fields in Wellington, though music clearly remains an important part of their lives.

The programme note explained that Mozart wrote these two duos for violin and viola (K 423 and 424) in 1783 to help out his friend Michael Haydn (Joseph’s brother) in Salzburg, when illness prevented him finishing a commission for six duos for the Archbishop. So they were presumably composed quickly, but there’s no evidence of haste in the melodic warmth and their level of interest, in the attractive way in which the ideas developed and in the fairly complex contrapuntal writing for the two instruments.

As they began the G major duo I had the impression that Van Leuven was under some pressure as her runs seemed a bit perfunctory. I continued to sense from time to time that she had not given the music quite as much attention as she might have, and that perhaps the two players had not found themselves in a comfortable space together. Within a minute or so such impressions disappeared and it was quickly clear that their instincts and fundamental musicality were guiding them very well.

In abstract terms, one can wonder whether such a duo will inspire really satisfying music, but any such doubts soon vanished as the close relationship with a string trio or even a string quartet seemed to assert itself. The two created a warm and spirited sound that seemed well anchored to human emotions. And Mozart’s interesting counterpoint made me want to explore, in comparison, the four duos that Michael Haydn did compose.

While the first and last movements of the first duo were spirited and filled with geniality, the middle movement, Adagio, was calm, in delightful contrast, and with less technical challenge, I thoroughly enjoyed the sounds of the two instruments. The notes drew attention to the viola’s slightly larger size that increased its richness, and Callaghan’s playing really drew attention to itself in the Adagio.

The second duo, in B flat, opened with a slow, meditative introduction, unison chords that quickly enriched themselves. In the Allegro part, passages of double stopping really extended the richness of the music, almost creating the sense of playing by three or four instruments, and the players delivered it with great accomplishment.

The piece concluded with a fairly elaborate theme and variations, in a determined vein, but which changed radically in mood with each variation; the players captured them most vividly.

Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist and composer; his Passacaglia of 1894 was based on a theme in the last movement of Handel’s harpsichord suite No 7 in G minor.(HWV 432). I’ve heard it played by several pairs of players over the past few years, sometimes in an arrangement for violin and cello. It combines a serious-minded theme with wide-ranging variations that both reflect that character but also offer a variety of contrasting emotions. It also calls for considerable technical talents, while maintaining thematic clarity and listeners’ attention. It’s a well-made piece that these players had mastered very successfully, which was particularly demonstrated in the accelerating, virtuosic race to the finish.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *