BEETHOVEN Violin and Piano Sonata Series – a feast for Wellingtonians!

BEETHOVEN – The complete Sonatas for Violin-and-Piano
A Lunchtime Series of five concerts from Chamber Music New Zealand

Bella Hristova (violin)
Michael Houstoun (piano)

Concert No.1 – Monday, 28th August, 2017
Violin Sonata No.1 in D Major, Op.12 No.1
Violin Sonata No 6 in A Major Op.30 No.1

Renouf Foyer, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas don’t span the composer’s creative output as imposingly as do his efforts in some of the other genres – within the short space of six years (between 1797 and 1803) he was to write nine out of the ten completed works for violin and piano, and the final single work a decade later. However, he had attempted a work for the two instruments as a fledgling composer; and he was also to produce both a set of Variations on “Se vuol ballare” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and a Rondo in G WoO.41 before the publication in 1799 of his first sonata for the genre. So he wasn’t exactly a beginner at the duo-writing task when he tackled this exuberant D Major work, the first of his three Op.12 sonatas.

The Sonata’s opening movement was an excellent way for violinist Bella Hristova and pianist Michael Houstoun to begin their traversal of the cycle – we were treated to a heady plunge into a vein of buoyant energy and confidently-wrought lyricism, the lines of communication between violinist and pianist here clearly outlined in a somewhat dry acoustic, happily emphasising the rapport between the two, via the music’s beautifully-dovetailed sequences of ebb and flow.

After enjoying Hristova’s and Houstoun’s playful assertiveness throughout the opening, I liked the touches of mystery they encouraged with their phrasings of the development’s music, the piano weaving long, sinuously running lines and the violin more elusively reiterating its opening figure in tandem with the piano, after which, by way of some beguiling exchanges the instruments re-explored the opening territories, Hristova playfully emphasising a visceral quality in her phrasing in places along the way which added to the music’s excitement.

The slow movement’s enchanting cantabile theme, heard firstly on the piano, and then reiterated by the violin, was given some inventive variation treatment by the composer, including a lovely gambolling sequence, the violin’s running lines deliciously augmented by the piano’s gurgling arpeggios, followed by an assertive, dramatic treatment involving both players digging into their notes and releasing irruptions of energy. A final variation took the music into more fanciful territories, each instrument appearing to occasionally stop and listen to the other’s increasingly discursive variant on what had gone before, the sounds seeming to pay little heed to time and place outside the realms created by the music.

As for the finale, its infectious energies immediately reawakened my earliest memories of discovery involving these works, Houstoun’s rhythmic trajectories giving the music tremendous elan, and thus encouraging from Hristova a similarly charged feeling of excitement, throughout. Both players relished the composer’s teasingly divergent modulation near the end, which airily ascends back up to the home key after its ear-catching harmonic adventure, with great self-satisfaction and aplomb – for Hristova and Houstoun, then, a dream start to their cycle!

With the Sixth Sonata, Op.30 No.1, Hristova and Houstoun moved into different territories of musical expression from a composer whose world had shifted to a state of ongoing existential crisis, one dominated by acute awareness of his growing deafness. Consequently, the music moves through its varying moods with a curious mixture of studied self-awareness and spontaneous exploration, a mood whose volatility was here beautifully realised by both musicians.

Hristova and Houstoun seemed to be able to “go with the flow” while dealing with interactions between the instruments which appeared in a kind of conflict/challenge with the other, assertive flourishes often met with questioning, withdrawn phrases, each speaking the phrase “what then?” Each player seemed acutely responsive to what the other was doing, balancing and co-ordinating sparkle and surge with introspectiveness in a way that led the listener’s ear continually on – a frisson of rapt intensity just before the recapitulation sounded particularly heartfelt and characteristic, as did the movement’s final flourish, with its quiet concluding rejoiner.

What a beautiful slow movment this work has! – the pianist’s gently rocking dotted rhythm supported the violinist’s cantabile line, before the instruments changed thematic roles, before the music took a breath-catching modulatory turn in a new direction, one filled with musings, spontaneous impulses of energy and thoughtful redirectionings, all of which were delivered in an entirely spontaneous and recreative way by the musicians.

Again, Beethoven took a by now familiar recourse to variation form for the finale, the resulting sequences characterised by the programme’s note-writer as “ranging from waggish to whimsical”. Certainly the expressive modes seem at times almost like cryptic clues for concealed messages, the musical flow alternating between great fluency and terse encodings! I particularly enjoyed the “hide-and-seek” variation mid-way, which set the whispered against the emphatic with po-faced theatricality, as well as the final capering energies of the concluding variation, whose winding-down meanderings towards the end kept us in thrall right up to the re-energised concluding gestures. What teamwork! – what timing! – and what a sense of identification with a composer’s world! It all augurs well for further instalments of the Hristova/Houstoun combination – a feast for Wellingtonians!

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