Roberto González-Monjas and Kit Armstrong Looking for Beethoven

ItalyItaly Beethoven: Roberto González-Monjas (violin) Kit Armstrong (piano) Accademia di Santa Cecilia Rome.  Sala Sinopoli,  Parco della Musica 12.02.2016. (JB)

Beethoven, Four sonatas for violin and piano

For me, one of the main pleasures of the Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano is the way they draw out the Mediterranean side of Beethoven’s soul. Roberto González-Monjas (violin) and Kit Armstrong (piano) didn’t seem to think so.  For them, Beethoven was firmly in the Viennese school in these pieces.  Which every schoolboy knows he was.  But there are also Hungarian touches to the González -Monjas-Armstrong performance.  That may come as a surprise to said schoolboy.  Still, nothing wrong with surprises: sometimes, that is.  But some of these surprises began to sound like a disapproval of Beethoven’s efforts.  The name for that is disturbance.

The duo first seemed to perform with the objective of anything you can play, we can play faster.  There are moments when this works, when it is profoundly respectful of the composer.  In the Spring Sonata, Op24, the third movement is marked allegro molto.  Whoever plays this movement, it usually lasts little over one minute.  The present duo’s performance must clock in at under half a minute: the blinking of an eye.  Here is Beethoven’s wit.  They get the joke and deliver it accordingly.  (I didn’t actually time them.)

However, they were in real trouble in the same sonata’s second movement: adagio molto espressivo.  Evidently, neither word meant much to them.  They sounded as though they were in haste to arrive at a place whose location they were unsure of.

The warm-up piece at the start of the recital was the Op12 No.1 in D.  Had they played this piece before?  It didn’t sound like it.  Anderson was doing his best to catch up with González-Monjas but not quite managing it; they were not quite together in places, (Shades of the famous live recital at Carnegie Hall of Rachmaninoff chasing Kreisler: hopelessly lost, Kreisler is said to have whispered to Rachmaninoff, Where are we?   The pianist replied, Carnegie Hall.)  Only kidding.  It wasn’t as bad as that.  But you get the picture.

For the two sonatas of the second half, they could have been a different duo.  This time, they were not in battle mode.  They began with the second sonata, No.2, of Opus 12.  This bristled with youthful energy.  Where No.1 had been all over the place, this was exquisitely focused.  Moreover there was a perfect ensemble. González has an enchanting way of dusting the string with his bow to help the piano along in its many solos. An individualist and highly musical sound comes from both players.  They are sensitive to each other’s playing which was woefully absent in No.1.  Armstrong produces the most pearly, even scale passages you ever heard, supremely musical as well as technically accomplished.  In the second movement’s Andante, piùtosto Allegretto  some charm was in evidence, just as I was despairing of ever hearing any.  No longer were they ramming everything down our throats.

The programme’s final offering was the great C minor, Op 30 No.2.  A double balancing act is required to bring this off.  First, Beethoven engages both players in a musical dialogue where questions must be asked in a questioning voice and answers in an answering one.  Call this the horizontal balance.  Second, there is the tricky question of how much the accompanying instrument (and both are called on for this) should support the soloist.  In a word the vertical balance. Perfection here too.  And like the greatest musicians, they made this double balancing sound easy.

The second movement – Adagio cantabile – strikes fear in all who play it.  The question is always how daring can you be with the Adagio tempo.  In answering that question you also need to keep in mind that these variations are not Beethoven’s finest font of inspiration.  Put that another way: some of them are dull.  Even in the exemplary recording of Grumiaux/Haskil, they overshoot the Adagio request so that poor Clara cannot sustain sounds which need to be sustained.  Tonight’s duo, filled this movement with CARE and GRACE which almost convinced us we were listening to great music. They didn’t lack courage in choice of tempo but they knew that here they must humbly put themselves in the hands of the gods.  I would never have believed they could do this.  But the gods, for their part, were kind.

The scherzo is rough, Beethoven humour. Tonight’s young men delivered it with mock aggressive solemnity, but making sure we heard the inverted commas round the “solemnity”.  Fun!  And a great stylistic accomplishment.

The brisk, aggressive approach worked well in the Allegro finale, not least because it was so perfectly balanced with the subdued tones of the episodes between the main leading theme.

Both these players lead busy, peripatetic lives.  That may be a partial explanation for some of the problems I have indicated.  Maestro González-Monjas (age twenty-eight) has recently become one of the three leaders of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra.  He also holds a teaching post at the Guildhall School of Music, London, where he was formerly a student, as well as having his own quartet and guest-leading a number of other orchestras including the London’s Philharmonia and the Manchester Camerata.

Kit Armstrong is delightfully small, of Oriental appearance, balletic of movement, and born twenty-three years ago in Los Angeles.   He records for Sony Classics and is in demand  in the world’s leading concert halls.  He also works as a composer.  A graduate of the Curtis Institute and the Royal Academy of Music, London, at the age of thirteen he met Alfred Brendel, who remains to this day his mentor and guide.

The aural memory from this concert which will remain with me for the rest of my life was Roberto González-Monjas’s violin in his two encores: the first two pieces of de Falla’s Spanish folksong arrangements.  Readers may know Conchita Supervia’s recording of these songs, accompanied by the incomparable Frank Marshall (Granados’s favourite pupil, and teacher of Alicia de Larrocha.)    González-Monjas can stand alongside the great Supervia.  The very soul of Spain was pouring out of his instrument here in the first one, then in the second – a lullaby – where he cast out pianissimo phrases, magically projected into a stratosphere where they disappeared.  Thank you sir.

Jack Buckley

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