BEETHOVEN VIOLIN SONATAS PART 5
Friday April 24, 2020
This evening recital marked the first disappointment (for me) in the series run by Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt. In one sense, it might have been so not because of what we heard but what we didn’t hear. On the program were two violinists – Kyla Matsuura-Miller and Markiyan Melnychenko – both to be accompanied by pianist Rhodri Clarke. As far as I remember, Matsuura-Miller was on board to tackle the Beethoven Sonata No. 2 before Melnychenko went on to account for the Kreutzer No. 9. Sadly, the former player was taken ill, so we were left with a one-work program. Well, you can hardly complain about this misfortune in our challenging climate, although patrons have been assured that we will get to hear the earliest of the composer’s sonatas in A at a later stage in this increasingly ambitious series.
The Kreutzer is a complete world in itself, of course, and swamps its fellow-passengers in Beethoven’s violin sonata output. Most chamber music addicts cling to the concept enunciated by some clown (Goethe?) of a string quartet as ‘a conversation among four intelligent people’; outsiders like me think of a quartet as a contest, a continuous series of assertions that have to be slotted into each other, an ongoing carefully ordered alteration in supremacy. Yes, the results can be mellifluous, yet the string quartets that stand out in the memory are those that resemble an intellectual conflict – even in Haydn.
Much the same can be said of piano trios and violin sonatas, especially this one. I played the piano part for it many times in younger days, usually partnering a violinist with much more experience of the score than I brought to the table. But no matter how many times we worked through it, I was always on edge; not just because of the technical requirements which simply deepen as the score progresses, but also because of the multiple decisions about what goes where and why a particular attack should be chosen and not another way equally as feasible.
Beethoven sets up this tension right from the extraordinary opening with the two instruments playing solos that eventually interlock at bar 11. Once the tempo changes to Presto, the work moves into competitive mode and not even the individual highlighting of the middle movement variations nor the major key optimism of the tarantella finale can detract from the sonata’s consistent grappling for attention.
Melnychenko did not have the happiest of starts, encountering some trouble with the two simple double stops in his first bar which wavered unnervingly. When he and Clarke got down to the first movement’s real business, the string line still sounded nervous; thanks to the exposition repeat, the combination began to assert authority over these active, dynamically fluctuating pages with some splendid slashing strokes from the violinist from bar 61 onward and an urgent drive from Clarke’s quaver underpinning after the piano’s C Major cadenza.
This violinist can spin a splendidly fine line in slow, lyrical passages; for example, the second subject – that unfinished E Major melody that slows the compulsive rush into a chorale – came over with a disarming warmth, as sweet as Ferras in his prime, and meeting the composer’s requirement for an emotional and technical oasis in the heart of a fiery narrative. Clarke showed willing from the start, inclined to overdraw his dynamics with a powerful delivery of every sforzando and an interpretation that saw a fortissimo in every forte. Only a spot of fluster in the flat-littered contrary motion territory around bar 229 marred a reliable output from the keyboard part, at this point treated with fitting vehemence. Whether it was quite appropriate at every stage for this partnership dynamic is another matter.
Nevertheless, we could relish the melting moment in the recapitulation of the second subject starting at bar 412: 26 bars of refined articulation from both executants. Only a spot of fumbling around bar 467 marred an engrossing rounding-out of this movement.
Clarke did excellent service with his establishment of the second movement’s material, demonstrating a no-nonsense approach to the Andante direction and finesse in giving each of the inner lines its value in the chordal progression. Both players collaborated in some subtle tempo tightening and easing during the initial statement before moving into an agreable first variation, which only suffered a few absent bass notes as Clarke worked hard to be discreet. Variations 2 and 3 proved exceptionally fine: crisp in the first, then sombre with no decrease in rhythmic impetus across the latter. The last of the variations found the pianist over-anxious to exert hegemony in pages where there is – for once – no competition, least of all from Melnychenko’s occasional pizzicati contributions. Still, the coda exemplified the best qualities that emerged every so often from this partnership: unanimity of direction, awareness of function, consonance in attack and dynamic.
Unfortunately, only a little way into the finale, you could hear that the combination had turned lop-sided. While the articulation rarely faltered and both players had resolved on a weltering speed, the piano proved too emphatic and insistent to sustain the postulation that this was a conversation. For instance, at bar 86 where the violin is genially bobbing around on its two lower strings, Clarke was hammering out the D Major theme as though he were engaged in a Brahms concerto. The sforzandi that start bars 109-11 proved to be not so much emphases but power-punches. Later, the lead-in to the two Adagio breaches near the end found the piano burying the violin in heavy fabric.
Sadly, this conclusion coloured your perceptions of the entire performance. It would be unwise to assert that these performers were mismatched – they achieved some fine passages of play – but the result all too often sounded one-sided. You can’t expect towering, steely lines from Lviv-born Melnychenko; his sound-quality is pointed and refined and is not capable of rising above a very forceful background or support. It may be that these artists had no chance to calculate at any length the acoustic parameters of the Athenaeum Theatre auditorium. At all events, this Kreutzer presented as rather imbalanced dynamically. I’ve plenty of respect for both musicians but this was only an occasionally successful attempt at a taxing musical challenge.