Switzerland Kosmos Beethoven – Schönberg, Beethoven, Webern: Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Joonas Ahonen (piano), Gstaad Digital Festival, broadcast live from Église de Saanen, Saanen, Gstaad, 15.8.2020. (CS)
Schönberg – Phantasy for violin and piano Op.47
Beethoven – Violin Sonata in C minor Op.30 No.2
Webern (1883-1945) – 4 Pieces for violin and piano Op.7
Beethoven – Violin Sonata in A Op.47, ‘Kreuzter’
The last of the Gstaad Digital Festival’s Kosmos Beethoven recitals was given by Moldovan-Austrian-Swiss violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Finnish pianist Joonas Ahonen, before a clearly expectant audience in Saanen Church. Two of Beethoven’s violin sonatas dominated the programme, but it was not with Beethoven that we began, rather Schönberg and his last instrumental composition, the Phantasy for violin and piano that was written in March 1949.
It’s not an ‘easy’ listen – nor an easy play! – but if anyone can make the Phantasy communicative, coherent and engaging, then its Kopatchinskaja whose performance style is animated, theatrical and demonstrative. From the gritty stab of the first two low notes, through the mercurial flights and swerves, growling double stops, ethereal harmonics, nail-biting glissandi and ricocheting pizzicati, she held her audience spellbound. In the opening Grave Schonberg’s expressionistic textures and shattered syntax really did seem fantastical, the fragmentary motifs that sparked back and forth between the two musicians like elfin-dialogues that chattered, shouted, whispered, even giggled with goblin glee.
The easing of the tempo towards the central Lento episode was utterly persuasive, calming the fury. In that slow section, the violin’s soaring cantilena shone glassily while the piano’s oscillating ostinato glistened: time stood still, and playfulness was banished. Instead the musicians created a shimmering celestial halo, one which recalled the iridescent Klangflächen (‘soundsheets’) of Schönberg’s pre-WW1 works. Yet the repressed tension threatened to burst forth at any moment: and did so, in the ensuing Scherzando staccatos that rebounded back and forth across the violin’s bridge – Kopatchinskaja’s bow seeming barely to touch the string – and between the players in asymmetrical rhythmic conundrums. At times Kopatchinskaja seemed a fiddler possessed, one who might spirit one’s children away. Restless, rebellious and spontaneous this was a terrific concert opener.
The Allegro con brio which opens Beethoven’s C minor Violin Sonata Op.30 No.2 is fiery and dramatic but it was mystery that Ahonen summoned in the piano’s prefatory remarks: there was little ‘brio’, the pulse was flexible, the rhythms fairly loose. But, with the entry of the violin the music sprang free. Again, Kopatchinskaja emphasised the ‘wildness’ in Beethoven’s taut motifs and stamping double-stopped chords: some of her sword-swipe bow strokes might have been a little more even-tempered, perhaps, but the duo maintained lucid textures and the moments of lyricism sailed through the maelstrom. The staccato march-like second subject was a cheeky thumbing of the nose, Kopatchinskaja daring to withdraw her sound to the merest thread, her bow bouncing on the spot with a spiky grace. The freedom and evenness of Ahonen’s whirling patterns created tremendous momentum which culminated in an exuberant expansion of gesture and dynamic at the close.
Ahonen took a similarly ‘free’ approach when stating the theme of the Adagio cantabile; the result was an eloquence that was tentatively poetic, but with the two instruments’ restatements and developments came more certainty. Each of the ‘episodes’ followed the same pattern: a withholding followed by a loosening and unfolding. I did find some of Kopatchinskaja’s more idiosyncratic gestures – a pianissimo above Ahonen’s staccato arpeggios so quiet it could hardly be heard, a sudden jerkiness and aggression which surely over-egged Beethoven’s forte marking – a little irksome, and Ahonen was no less prone to unpredictable outbursts even while his running demisemiquavers could be silvery smooth. The performers’ insistence on exaggeration, contrast and conflict destroyed some of the peace that I hear in this movement.
The Scherzo benefited from the duo’s precise sculpting, even if the sforzando accents which colour the sprightly line were rather violent, and Kopatchinskaja seemed determined to make her tone as dry and hard as possible, even denying the Trio its fluent ease. With the reprise of the Scherzo, it was Ahonen’s turn to tease the rhythms and stutter with percussive clammer: I’m not sure that the brief movement can bear such heavy-handedness. Not surprisingly, the Finale brought drama’s aplenty, and the facility of both performer’s was impressive; here, too, they did allow the melodies to breathe, in between the more breakneck passages (and a noticeable, ‘unscripted’ accelerando swept the music forward at various points).
Beethoven’s mighty ‘Kreutzer’ was still to come. But, before that, a palette-cleanser: Webern’s 1910 Four Pieces for violin and piano Op.7, the first of which was the first piece that Webern published, in a supplement to the cultural journal Der Ruf, in March 1912. The concentration and extremes that Webern calls for – ethereal muted harmonics, a ppp qualified with the instruction kaum hörbar (barely audible) – seem tailor-made for Kopatchinskaja’s penchant for boundary pushing. The first movement, Sehr langsam, was exquisitely tender, the lyricism hushed but assured; Kopatchinskaja climbed high up the lower strings, even for the col legno gestures, garnering a ‘distant’ tone quality which enhanced the poignant wistfulness. The camera angle denied us a sight of the violinist’s acrobatics at the start of Rasch with its abrupt alternations between rapid repetitions near the bridge and left-hand pizzicati, but the textures sounded clear and bright; though the movement’s fragmentations are riven with a nervous energy, Kopatchinskaja’s sparky, firm pizzicati passages captured a certain mischievousness too. The only way I can describe the third piece is to suggest that it brought to mind the wisps, sighs, snaps and shimmers of a lake coming slowly to life at a cool summer dawn-break. At the close of the final Bewegt, Kopatchinskaja turned to the audience to direct her final ‘whispered’ tumble (wie ein hauch) into the rafters of Saanen Church, her alert eyes seeming to dare an echo to return her violin-breath.
And, so, on to Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ sonata. Freedom, independence and wilfulness had been the hallmarks of this recital thus far, so it was no surprise that the introductory Adagio sostenuto had all of those characteristics, both performers manipulating the pulse, adding ornamentations, arpeggiating chords, snatching away phrase-ends and injecting sudden changes of dynamics in these prefatory eighteen bars – and, indeed, subsequently. It certainly kept the listener on their toes but didn’t always serve the lyricism. The Presto flew with breathless recklessness – though absolute technical assurance; it was quite a relief, though, when the slow dolce theme intermittently interceded! That said, the players’ concentration, stamina and discipline were unwavering and breath-taking. The Andante con Variazioni had a lovely beguiling fluency and also stature and gravitas, especially in the third, minor-key variation. The deftness and clarity of Ahonen’s passagework and ornaments helped to establish an inner energy and heartbeat; and in the highly decorated fourth variation, the pianist’s ability to sustain a strong and forward-reaching cantilena despite the wealth of detail and elaboration was noteworthy. One could sense the audience, shuffling their feet in preparation for the gallop of the Presto – and they weren’t disappointed. The duo sustained a light-touch as the music ran away with itself: a blissful burst of joy of which we are all in much need these days.
The audience stamped long and hard, and, eventually, got their encore: John Cage’s Nocturne might not have been their ‘first choice’ but it sent them into the night bearing its mystery and spirituality with them.