Fiery, Passionate Mullova Excels in Beethoven Sonatas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Viktoria Mullova (violin), Paolo Giacometti (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 24.3.2013. (GD)

Beethoven: Violin Sonata in A minor Op.23
Violin Sonata in F major Op.24 ‘Spring’
Violin Sonata in A major Op.47 ‘Kreutzer’

Like all prominent violinists Mullova has the ability to change her style and technique to suit the work she is performing. I last heard her in concert in a memorable rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Comcerto with the late and much missed Sir Charles Mackerras. On that occasion she played with a powerfully Olympian command of the work’s breadth and nobililty. Tonight she was in a more firery ‘Sturm und Drang’ mood. This was apparent in the opening work. the Violin Sonata in A minor Op. 23. Mullova quite compellingly emphasised the quite agit,ated tone with its short phrases and terse shifts in tone and dynamics. The exposition modulation to E minor Mullova played in a fittingly rugged manner, making the sudden tonal shift more abrupt than it usually sounds. All this occurred in a relatively short movement, with exposition repeat, and the sudden appearance of a new theme introduced to the lead in to the coda. Beethoven later used this technique in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony.

The Andante Scherzoso piu Allegretto is in complete contrast to the opening movement. It integrates a quasi scherzo into its ‘allegretto’ tone and is not really a slow movement at all. It also includes a fugal theme. Initially it sounds as though Beethoven is experimenting with fugal writing here, but it is actually much more assured in its use of counterpoint than it initially sounds. The movement has an ambiguous feel to it sounding both serious in the fugal passages and light hearted and playful in the ‘scherzoso’ sequences. Beethoven was to remain fascinated with musical contrast and paradox throughout his composing life. Mullova caught this tone of contrast with consummate musical judgement, sounding not just playful, but at times quite forceful – even rough – in tone, but always in accord with the irony within the music. In the quasi fugal sequences she played in a more rigorous and restrained style thereby emphasising the irony/paradox all the more.

The ‘rondo’ finale continues with all kinds of contrasts and inversions, not least the repeat of the initial A minor theme in the piano left hand, and an inversion of that theme in the violin part. Mullova was in her element here, especially in the midway shift to the parallel key of A major. The unexpected ‘sotto voce’ which concludes the sonata sounded particularly effective in its quasi enigmatic tone.

I go into some detail with this sonata, not only because of the excellence of Mullova’s rendition, but to draw attention to the work’s dramatic originality in the context of Beethoven’s ‘early period’. It is much less played than the following violin sonata, the much played ‘Spring’ Sonata, but it is arguably a more innovative work despite the beautiful, but more simple lyricism of the latter sonata.

I have praised Mullova’s playing, but what of her piano accompanist Paolo Giacometti. Mostly his playing was a model of sensitivity and pianistic finesse. This came over with particular clarity with the mellow, ‘period’ sounding tone of the reconstructed forte-piano he used. But even though I use the term ‘accompanist’ the ideal in these works is one of dialogue between the violin and pianist, and tonight I didn’t always hear this. There was no problem with coordination; they played together throughout, but there was a divergence of performative styles. As mentioned above, Mullova’s playing was fiery and passionate, whereas Giacometti’s playing was more restrained and introspective. This worked well in the more reflective and lyrical aspects of the sonatas, but in, say, the first movement of the famous ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata they seemed to be coming from entirely different stylistic perspectives. It was always a pleasure to hear a plethora of pianistic detail not always apparent, but overall I felt that Mullova’s passionate style needed a more correspondingly passionate dialogue from the pianist. I later played the classic 1940 recording of the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata with Szigeti and Bela Bartok playing the piano part. Szigeti and Bartok, corresponding to the performative fashions of the time, deploy heavy rubato and Szigeti freely utilises vibrato; but like Mullova tonight Szigeti played in a fiery passionate manner,. But what an amazing dialogue there was here with Bartok’s equally fiery playing – as though they had ‘lived’ this music together for years, which actually appears to be the case.

The opening of the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata with its sudden departure from the home key of A major to the A minor presto was realised with great conviction, and although Mullova played in a free manner in terms of phrasing and dynamics she avoided the heavy rubato some prominent violinists favour. And, similarly, she deployed vibrato with great economy, usually when the music was more expressive (usually with Beethoven written into the score), but her vibrato never sounded affected or over-done. The F major second movement, with its five distinct variations, found violinist and pianist more in harmony with each other. The darker, more meditative tone of the third variation was notable for its luminosity and contrast with the preceding variations with free violin melody which Mullova intoned with a wonderful radiance. The finale with its sharp A major chord interventions and 6/8 tarantella in rondo form was a delight which sustained itself right up to the concluding jubilant rush in A major.

The ‘Spring’ Sonata, with its famous lyricism, found soloist and pianist more in accord. The delicate keyboard accompaniment in the opening violin melody both complemented the violin melody and projected the range and diversity of Beethoven’s piano writing at this stage. The exposition shifts into the minor, casting an unsettling feeling, were superbly integrated; the Adagio, with its sudden turn into B, flat had an almost Mozartian tone. Indeed tonight’s programme writer suggests that Mozart’s great Violin Sonata K526 with its wonderful melodic interplay between violin and piano was the model here. The witty cross-rhythms and the abrupt stop-and-start melodic interruptions of the scherzo were delivered with consummate style and perception, as was the concluding rondo with its alternations between major and minor modes and rhythmic shifts and juxtapositions. Here Mullova made a few fluffs and her tuning was not always immaculate, but this was a small price to pay for such general musical excellence and integrity.

As an encore Mullova and Giacometti played an exuberant and stylish rendition of the witty last movement (Allegro vivace) of Beethoven’s later Violin Sonata No.8 in G, Op.30 No 3 – a movement used so effectively in Michelle Deville’s charming 1988 film ‘La Lectrice’ starring the inimitable Miou-Miou.

Geoff Diggines