BEETHOVEN – Violin and Piano Sonata Series – a final frolic and a fury, to great acclaim!

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.5 – Friday, Ist September, 2017
Violin Sonata No.2 in A Major, Op.12 No.2
Violin Sonata No 7 in C Minor Op.30 No.2

Renouf Foyer, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

The excellently-written programme notes accompanying this series of concerts made reference to the “frolicsome” mood of Beethoven’s A Major Violin Sonata Op.12 No.2, which opened this, the last of the lunchtime series of concerts given by Bella Hristova and Michael Houstoun. The very opening of the work’s Allegro vivace beginning was smile-inducing, the buoyantly-tripping rhythms shared by both instruments, the piano slightly more dominant in this environment (and more so from my seat on the “Town Hall” side of the space this time round, compared with my “other-side” sound picture for the opening concert) – Hristova’s silvery tones were occasionally masked in unison-like passages, though otherwise the discourse was teasingly assured, the po-faced conclusion to the movement particularly so, with its amusing throw-away manner!

Big-boned, seriously-declaimed piano chording opened the second movement, a mood to which the violin responded with silvery, vulnerable-sounding beseechment. After this hint of desolation, the exchanges between the instruments became more consolatory, in a flowing middle section, the piano again sounding more to the fore by dint of the ambience, its sostenuto tones more “supported” than those of the violin. The finale seemed to restore the balance between the two, thanks to some exchanges of wonderfully assertive upwardly-propelled arpeggiated phrases, here matched to perfection by violinist and pianist, Hristova again colouring the gesture by infusing a certain “unfettered” edge to the occasional note, which brought a certain excitement to the sounds.

Though the occasional violin phrase in the second subject group seemed to my ears masked by the piano’s more overbearing presence, both Hristova and Houstoun dug into the minor/major-key moment of angst with forthright tones, Houstoun then assertively putting the music back on track once again for the last “hurrah”, the rocket-like upward thrusts again splendidly launched by both musicians, each tumbling their notes downwards once again with great glee, the piano cheekily turning a kind of somersault on its own right at the end!

By the time he came to write his Op.30 Sonatas, Beethoven was all too aware of his encroaching deafness, as evidenced by letters written at the time to trusted friends in which he expresses feelings of despair mingled with growing defiance – his oft-quoted words, “I shall take fate by the throat, it shall not overcome me!” come from one of these letters, sentiments which are just as strongly expressed by the music of the C Minor Sonata, the second of the three Op.30 works.

The piano’s terse opening phrase set the scene, the violin taking up the theme over the accompanying keyboard rumblings and grumblings. A couple of brief sparrings between the two led to the second subject’s lighter, more congenial manner, though the rhythms’ initial playfulness soon sharpened its edge as the intensities flared up again at the cadences – both Hristova and Houstoun gave these contrasting episodes plenty of strength and lyricism, driving the music into the dark wood of the development, and bringing out the relentless questing spirit of the journey. After allowing the more lyrical moments some breathing-space, the players pulled out the instrumental stops for the movement’s end, building the textures to almost overwhelmingly orchestral effect.

What relief was afforded by the beautiful Adagio cantabile! – Houstoun’s tones gave it a calm simplicity, while Hristova’s violin was rich and warm in reply, both “breathing” the lines of the music beautifully. A central section arpeggiated the music in winsome archways, both musicians deftly touching the music in, even if some of Hristova’s phrase-ends were lost in places beneath the piano’s more fulsome projections. On a couple of occasions a gently persuasive rhythmic change of trajectory was violently interrupted by keyboard outbursts, which were short-lived as they were unexpected, a combination of gentle pizzicati and long-breathed bowed lines from Hristova over conciliatory gestures from Houstoun concluding the movement.

Deceptively simple at the outset, the scherzo tripped its way along, the instruments exchanging pleasantries until the violin suddenly fixated on a single note and exchanged some brief but stinging crossfire with the piano, before returning to the opening congenialities. The Trio section of the work reminded me a little of the “Russian” melody used by both Beethoven in his String Quartet Op.59 No.2 and Musorgsky in the Coronation Scene of Boris Godunov.

Hristova and Houstoun allowed these episodes a lighter, more relaxed tone than in the finale which followed – a dark, muttered opening called for all kinds of emphatic responses, from furtive scamperings to an engaging sense of “schwung”, with violinist and pianist in determined accord, pushing their instruments along a truly epic kind of musical spectrum! After one of the oft-repeated keyboard mutterings had suddenly led the music into hitherto unchartered modulatory realms, the players straightaway saw their chance for freedom, and “pounced”, driving the rhythms fiercely and determinedly towards a resolution of will that infused the music’s spirit with something indomitable.

It was playing which brought the house down, and earned Hristova and Houstoun a richly-deserved standing ovation, as much for what we had just enjoyed as for the musicians’ stunning achievement¬†over a week’s solid concertising in bringing us the complete cycle of these works – certainly, a landmark musical event whose reception by the audiences indicated enjoyment of a rare order, as well as warm and enduring gratitude.