Momentous performances of Beethoven violin sonatas: the third and fourth recitals

Michael Houstoun (piano) and Bella Hristova (violin)
Chamber Music New Zealand

Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas: Concerts 3 and 4

Violin Sonata No 8 in G, Op 30 No 3 and No 9 in A, Op 47 (‘Kreutzer’)
Violin Sonata No 3 in E flat, Op 12 No 3 and No 10 in G, Op 96

Renouf Foyer, Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 30 August and Thursday 31 August 2017, noon

My only knowledge of an earlier full cycle of Beethoven’s violin sonatas is at the first New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in 1986. They were played by Maurice Hasson and Maurice Till, in three recitals: two in the old Concert Chamber of the Town Hall and the third, which included the Kreutzer, in the main auditorium of the Town Hall. The old concert chamber, for those whose memories are not so long, seated many more than its replacement the Ilott did; it was upstairs, where the mayoral chambers were located after the 1990s refurbishment of the building (just incidentally, why was that major restoration not sufficient to meet earthquake standards only two decades later?).

It was the beginning of a truly optimistic era when Wellington’s claimed cultural pre-eminence was fairly undisputed; that ritual claim is now a joke. The music-rich festival was possible as a result of sponsorship by most of the major New Zealand state and private corporations, most of which abandoned Wellington as an indirect result of the neo-liberal devastation of the late 80s and early 90s. At that first, 1986, festival there were about 36 concerts of real classical music, which I’ll write about in an ‘extra’ article shortly.

This time we heard at the piano the most distinguished of Maurice Till’s pupils. Houstoun and the 2007 winner of the Michael Hill International Violin Competition spread them over five hour-long lunchtime recitals, in the Renouf Foyer where they were positioned backing the long south wall , between the two bars.

The sonatas were paired interestingly, the first and the second of each set of three, together; Opp 12 and 30; the Op 23 and 24 pair (which had probably been intended to be published under the same opus number) were played together on Tuesday; while the last two, Opp 47 and 96, had the third of the Opp 12 and 30 sets as mates.

Op 30 No 3, in G, opened calmly and swiftly (relative to some), both instruments in admirable accord in terms of dynamics and expressive detail, allowing a quite subtle increase in volume as the theme was repeated. The piano seems to make the running for some time, while the violin is involved in more decorative effects, perhaps reflecting sympathetically on what the piano is saying. The atmosphere hardly changes from a congenial and sunny character apart from the few moments when the violin delivers rapid tremolo phrases.

There was a charming touch of hesitancy in the Minuet, second movement which is largely a study in triplets – triplet quavers inside the minuet rhythm, yet in many ways it seemed to be the thoughtful, meditative heart of the sonata. And the last movement, though fast, never sacrificed its basic elegance which was shared gracefully between the two instruments.

The ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata
Then the Kreutzer. Unlike all the earlier sonatas, its inspiration lay in intended performance by a star violinist, and its quasi-symphonic character confers a reputation that tends to put it in a privileged class. A provenance similar to that of Op 96 which was in Thursday’s concert, and which for me is at least as interesting. However, the Kreutzer is a big drama and the two met it on those terms. The singular, tentative opening by the violin set the scene which was reflected in different colours by the piano. It seemed to me that the shifting moods and meanings of the body of the first movement were superbly balanced as each instrument found its own voice, the one never impeding the other, even through the increasingly tumultuous episodes.

The ‘theme and variations’ second movement opens undemonstratively, but goes through the typical range of sharply contrasted variations, the first two offering a dominant role, inviting attentiveness first to one, then to the other was like a display of mutual admiration and respect. Later came the time for virtuosic, meditative, more purely decorative episodes but ending in pensive tones. The Presto movement suggests a tarantella, and the players again dealt impressively with the successive, abrupt mood changes: calm, then agitated and brilliant. They were admirably balanced and cohesive, and given their contrasting musical backgrounds, displaying a oneness of vision that filled the space.

Thursday: Opus 12 No 3
The Thursday concert included the other stand-alone sonata, Op 96 – the tenth, premiered in 1813, nearly a decade after the ‘Kreutzer’. It might have been interesting to have heard the two successively.

But first came the third of the Opus 12 sonatas, in E flat, and it was here that I felt, for the only time, that the piano was out of step with the violin. The piano was in charge right from the start; not merely in charge, but somewhat unmindful of the complementary role of the violin. It was an impression that I was initially ready to attribute to my position, on the right side of the players, that is, the Town Hall side (on Wednesday I’d been on the left of the players). It was so unexpected that I imagined for a while that I was imagining the effect, and that I must try to rid my head of prejudice, if that was the problem. But even when piano and violin seemed equal partners in terms of the music’s spirit and interest, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that the piano was careless of its impact on the balance; and I couldn’t persuade myself that it was somehow the violin which was not measuring up.

The second movement brought better balance however, even where the violin’s role was to express the calm and dreaminess of the Adagio, and so this was the most successful part of the E flat sonata. However, in the third movement the same sort of imbalance recurred. While I didn’t conduct a statistically flawless survey, the odd comment from acquaintances, unprompted, rather confirmed my own impressions.

Opus 96
The Opus 96, G major sonata (the second of the ten in that key), returned to the flawless performances of the two sonatas on Wednesday, where there existed a courteous and discreet balance between the two parties; a congenial conversation between them, reasoned and thoughtful. Between its expressive thematic clauses, decorative passagework was shared beautifully between the two. The character of the Adagio espressivo, and much else in the piece, which the programme notes attributed to the known talents of the violinist for whom it was written, was particularly rapturous: meditative in the best Beethovenian sense, unobtrusive and wistful. It responded magically to the sensitivity and supremely unhurried pace at which Hristova and Houstoun stepped through it.

I will now risk confessing that I had forgotten that the music that emerged in the fourth movement and which I seemed to know much better than the earlier movements, belonged to this sonata. As a finale, it seems unusual, not at all a compulsive race to the finish, but a series of superficially distinct episodes, in turn animated, brusque, meditative, meandering, in lively conversations that dart suddenly this way and that. As you think the real coda has at last arrived, comes yet another change of mood and a sort of secretive exchange emerges till the first theme reappears, only to be interrupted as the listener is tricked again and again, Haydn-like, by unfulfilled expectations. I may well have decided that this was my favourite of the ten sonatas, though with players of the calibre and sensitivity of these two it tended to be the response to nearly every one of them.

Camerata’s beguiling “What’s in a name?” concert of Haydn and Mozart

Camerata, with Diedre Irons (piano)
HAYDN – Symphony No.6 in D Major, Hob. 1:6 “Le Matin”
MOZART – Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K.271 “Jeunehomme”
Concertmaster: Anne Loeser

Adam Concert Room, NZSM
Victoria University of Wellington

Thursday, 31st August, 2017

Founded in 2015 by the late and lamented Ian Lyons with colleague Liz Pritchett, Camerata is a group of musicians dedicated to the idea of making “high quality, joyful chamber music, accessible to aficionados and newcomers to classical music”. Led by Anne Loeser, a violinist with the NZSO, the group consists of an amalgam of NZSO,Orchestra Wellington and Wellington Chamber Orchestra members, including in this evening’s concert a number of NZSM students and graduates. In accordance with its objective of accessibility, Camerata performs for audiences in return for koha, or voluntary contributions from its listeners.

This was the second occasion on which I’d heard the group perform, the first being in the very different surroundings of St.Peter’s Church on Willis St., whose resplendent qualities included a rather warmer performing acoustic that what we heard this time round in the Adam Concert Room. Each venue brings its own qualities to a performance, of course, and here the instrumental clarity of the different textures and timbres sang out readily during both the symphony and concerto performances. Considering that Camerata has to “realign” its textural and tonal characteristics for each new concert because of the changes in personnel (I compared the two lists of players in each of the concerts I’ve attended, and there were quite a few different names this time round) I felt gratified that the playing seemed to inherit so many of the previous concert’s positive characteristics – no doubt a tribute to both leadership and consistency.

I can’t help but echo my Middle C colleague Lindis Taylor’s amalgam of delight and concern regarding the presence of some early Haydn symphonies in Camerata’s concerts – if only such a group as this would go on and give all of these early works the expert hearing in public performance they’re not likely to get under the auspices of any other local ensemble! To paraphrase a well-known wartime politician’s words, “Never in the field of human creativity was so much attributed to one (Haydn) who had wrought so many (symphonies) but was known by so few” – and so it remains in concert-going circumstances with these Haydn works!

Camerata’s is a start, of course, and despite the non-appearance (as far as I know) of Nos. 2 and 5 of the composer’s symphonic canon in the group’s presentations, this one – No.6 in D Major, Le Matin (The Morning) is significant, in that it’s the earliest of the composer’s symphonies that ordinary concert-goers are likely to know about, almost certainly because of its nickname! – (Quick Question: Name the earliest of the Haydn Symphonies…..Answer: Easy! No.6 in D Major, Le Matin…..I’ve got a recording of it, along with 7 & 8!)…, this is an important factor with these symphonies, as without the suggestive evocative titles these particular ones probably wouldn’t ever be regarded as special: – but ah! – the “Philosopher ” (No.22), “Lamentatione” (No.26), the “Hornsignal” (No.31), “Mercury” (No.43), and “Trauer” (Mourning) No.44 – and these are all before we even reach the famous “Farewell” Symphony (No.45)! What Camerata’s long-term plans regarding these works of Haydn’s are have yet to be revealed, but as Lindis Taylor ruefully remarked, for the group to get through all the symphonies, he would, at the present rate, “need to live till at leat 2050!”

This was the first symphony the twenty-nine year-old Haydn wrote for the Esterhazy court in Eisenstadt, near Vienna, shortly after being appointed the Prince’s Vice-Kapellmeister. It’s not certain from where he derived his inspiration for a triumverate of symphonies on the “morning, noon and night” themes, though his employer, Prince Paul, was known to be fond of programmatic Italian baroque music, and may have requested the scheme of the composer. Whatever the case, the music impresses more by dint of its highlighting the skills of the orchestra’s individual players, rather than the programme element as such. The Prince had recently employed some additional musicians for his orchestra, whom Haydn would have recommended – and so the composer saw to it that their skills were very much to the fore in the new work.

So, a new day dawned, and off we went on our musical journey! Despite the dryness of the acoustic, the playing itself generated plenty of “atmosphere” and stood up well to scrutiny. After the first glimmerings of light turned into fully-formed sunbeams, the flute cheekily began the allegro, filled with gorgeous interchanges between instruments, buoyed along by irrepressible energies. The development modulated the music freely and daringly, and the horn’s cheeky pre-Eroica “early” entry in front of the flute’s “recapitulation” entry broadened the smiles even further!

The slow movement, beginning Adagio, gave us a quietly ascending scale on the strings whose “minor’ inclinations were thwarted by the solo violin’s interruption in the major key! after some soulful duetting between violin and ‘cello, the music began to dance a graceful minuet-like measure, violin and cello exchanging decorative flourishes, both Anne Loeser and cellist Andrew Joyce enjoying themselves hugely! A couple of sforzando chords and the Adagio briefly returned, rich with experience, and more than ready to give way and sink into silence.

The players gave the Minuet a vigorous stride over characterful, held wind notes, straightforward enough until the begining of the Trio, when bassoon and double bass took charge, allowing some comment from a viola to punctuate their quirky exchanges, a kind of get-together of gruff, characterful voices, rather like a favourite uncle’s oft-told “joke” at a family party. By contrast, the flute’s light, airy presence launched the finale with gossamer grace, a gesture immediately imitated by the violin and then thrown into the midst of the orchestra – Haydn has such fun with his different resources, creating such a sense of variety through his use of different textures and timbres, and challenging the skills of the players, none more so than the leader’s, whose playing in this instance was appropriately virtuosic!

After the interval we were treated to a performance of Mozart’s first “big” piano concerto, and an acknowledged masterpiece, the so-called “Jeunehomme” Piano Concerto, No. 9 in E-flat Major K.271 – the work’s nickname, though apparently incorrectly spelt, refers to the young girl who first played this concerto, Victoire Jenamy. Alongside a “named” Haydn symphony, the concerto’s title seemed more than appropriate for this concert.

Diedre Irons, whose Mozart playing I’ve long admired, was the eagerly-awaited soloist for Camerata on this occasion. Possibly, some kind of technical hitch with her “tablet” from which she played the score caused a breakdown just after she’d re-entered the discourse after the opening orchestral tutti. Whatever the case, it was one which she duly sorted, realigned with the orchestra, and began again from just befor her re-entry, with no glitches the second time round.

Once we’d weathered the break in transmission and all been reconnected, we were able to turn our attention to the actual music-making, which had a quality of “presence” I can only put down to the immediacy of the venue and the smaller-than-usual number of instrumentalists. These conditions meant that, whatever even a single player in the ensemble did, the effect was noticeable, giving everything that “happened” a specific and meaningful focus, as opposed to the often generalised feeling which can take away the “edge” from normal-sized orchestral performances. Added to this was the pianist’s life-like inflection of the piano part, enabling the notes to speak with real feeling – listening to her playing put me in mind of encountering a warm-hearted and insightful conversationalist, as responsive to others as she herself was engaging and thoughtful.

The slow movement immediately reminded me for a time of the parallel movement in K.364, the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. The musicians evoked a remarkable depth of feeling via their exchanges, the ensemble contributing its darkly-based string-tones and beseeching winds, and the piano its theatrically tragic recitative-like manner. The cadenza-like solo took these feelings to even greater depths, evoking what seemed almost like late-Romantic gesturings in its explorations of sorrow, and drawing a demonstrative reaction from the ensemble in response.

All of which was swept away in the finale’s spring tide of joyous energy which gambolled, chattered and tumbled every which way from the pianist’s fingers through and over the orchestral players, the music irrepressible in its bubbling and chatting character, sweeping all before it – as befits, of course, a release from darkness and strife! Irons showed her mastery of articulation in marrying recitative with the music’s trajectory of abandonment, before plunging into a transitional flourish which led the music to a world of gorgeous incongruity, pizzicato strings and all, in the shape and form of a minuet. Again she impressed with the timing of her articulation in gathering up our sensibilities before we knew what was happening, and giving our exuberances their heads in company with the music, taking us all to the final flourishes of the music’s brilliant conclusion. Bravo!

Very great credit to the Camerata players and those who help keep this particular ship afloat – already a group generating much interest, the ensemble will, I’m sure, grow and prosper artistically. Repertoire-wise there’s plenty of potential, and I’ll be interested to see in what direction the group inclines – doing something a bit different is often scary, but with whole-heartedness and the skills to back the ventures up, Camerata is likely to go places!

P.S. (from September 5th) – a message just to hand from Camerata’s Liz Pritchett has answered my queries regarding earlier Haydn symphonies and the ensemble’s plans for more: – Symphony No.2 appeared in Camerata’s very first concert programme, in April 2015 (unfortunately not reviewed).  Symphony No.5 hasn’t yet been played by the ensemble, but there are plans to do more of the earlier symphonies – hopefully the “missing link” will eventually get its dues, also!  (Many thanks to Liz Pritchett!)