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.

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