Bella Hristova (violin) and Michael Houstoun (piano)
(Chamber Music New Zealand)
Beethoven: the sonatas for piano and violin
Sonata no.4 in A minor, Op.23
Sonata no.5 in F major, Op.24 ‘Spring’
Renouf Foyer, Michael Fowler Centre
Tuesday 29 August 2017, 12 noon
We are fortunate indeed to have a full week (Monday to Friday) of these wonderful sonatas. Having them performed in the Renouf Foyer proved to be an excellent decision – not so large and cavernous as the main auditorium, but still seating a large number of people; my rough calculation came to upwards of 300, and nearly all the available chairs filled.
Both sonatas were composed 1800-1801, for the wealthy patron Count Moritz von Fries. Yet they were very different in character; no.4 was in three movements while no.5 was in four.
No. 4 opened with a lively and extravert presto, the instruments taking it in turns to come to the fore. Great clarity was to be heard from both, and the players matched each other perfectly.
The second movement, andante scherzoso, più allegretto, was not lacking in animation either, though in gentler, more playful style, with interesting off-beat rhythms that were given full play. Balance between the performers was perfect, and the acoustic of the Renouf Foyer allowed us to hear the subtlety of both instruments easily, compared with listening to chamber music in the main auditorium.
Another fast movement, allegro molto, completed the sonata. There was a certain similarity between the three movements. Considerable use was made of staccato in this movement; there was delicacy as well as virtuosity. This was as thoroughly pleasing performance.
The second sonata is much the better known of the two. Here we were, two days away from the official first day of Spring. Flowers are out, and even some kowhai trees – and Spring weather has been all too predominant lately. The Spring has brought not only flowers and trees to life, but also warmed us with sunshine – literal (a little) and spiritual, through music.
The Spring of this sonata, with its rising opening allegro phrases, is utterly uplifting, whatever the weather. They come first from the violin and then from the piano. They are not too quick, but take us with them. Familiarity certainly does not dull the effect of this masterpiece. Every detail was delineated beautifully, but always with intensity. I last heard it live, I think, some years ago, with Michael Houstoun and Wilma Smith.
The slow movement, adagio molto espressivo, was played with warm expressiveness – almost lush. Here we heard the fine tones of Bella Hristova’s Amati violin more than was possible in the quicker movements. The programme note described the ‘rhapsodic realm’ of this movement.
There appeared to be one treble note of the piano that sounded as if it needed some technical attention, but otherwise the tone from both instruments was admirable and refined.
The short scherzo: allegro molto, with its ‘mis-step’ between the two instruments, as the programme note described it, in other words, unsychronised writing, was a delight, as was the final rondo: allegro ma non troppo, that featured long, strong notes from the violinist and intriguing treatment of the recurring rondo theme. The programme note stated ‘…we hear Beethoven writing in a manner that induces contentment.’ And that was indeed the case.
Six more sonatas can be heard over the next three days.