United Kingdom Tolstoy and Beethoven – An Uneasy Relationship: Yulia Chaplina (piano), Jack Liebeck (violin), Julia Somerville OBE (narrator). Kings Place, London, 15.10.2020. (CC)
Tolstoy – Family Happiness (1859, excerpt)
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op.27/2, ‘Moonlight’ (1801)
Tolstoy – Kreutzer Sonata (1889, excerpt)
Beethoven – Violin Sonata No.9 in A, Op.47, ‘Kreutzer’ (1804)
As always, the sense of relief in returning to a favourite concert hall is palpable. It has been lovely to revisit the Wigmore Hall in recent weeks; now it was the turn of Kings Place, near King’s Cross, for a superb, themed evening.
Jack Liebeck is a violinist who marries a fine imagination with a technique of steel. You hear his ability in his astonishing, persuasive account of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Gourlay on Orchid Classics (a MusicWeb International review by Roy Westbrook is here). I was lucky enough to attend the recording sessions of the Schoenberg – held under the all-hearing ear of producer Andrew Keener at Maida Vale. The Schoenberg a vibrant performance of a piece that needs the most persuasive of advocates; the coupling with Brahms is a natural one, given Schoenberg’s admiration of that composer (not to mention his 1947 essay, Brahms the Progressive). While few will make the Brahms the primary reason for purchase, the combination is a powerful one.
Here, the idea of linking the musical references in Tolstoy’s texts with performances of the actual pieces came from pianist Yulia Chaplina, a London-based Russian who has recorded a well-received disc of Russian piano music (Tchaikovsky, Gubaidulina, Scriabin, and Rachmaninov) for Champs Hill Records. She introduced the idea from the stage before the concert proper began: one hour, no interval, socially distanced. Academically inclined readers may be interested in a journal article in Ulbandus by Natalie Dame entitled The Search for Narrative Control: Music and Female Sexuality in Tolstoy’s ‘Family Happiness’ and ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ (Vol.16, 2014, pp.158-176). The choice of texts is finely judged, offering us aspects of both early and later Tolstoy (although both Beethoven pieces are from his so-called ‘middle period’). We should also perhaps remember that the outcomes of the two ladies concerned were very different: while Masha in Family Happiness emerges unscathed and returns to the bosom of her family, the heroine of The Kreutzer Sonata dies, murdered by her husband Pozdnyshev (who escapes punishment).
Julia Somerville OBE – perhaps best known for her newscasting – was the most perfectly judged of narrators, reading the chosen excerpts spellbindingly. The first, from the 1859 novella Family Happiness, a story of love between Masha (Mashechka, 17) and Sergey Mikhailych (36), concentrates on the appearance of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata in the novella (later, Masha will play Mozart). Masha plays the Beethoven sonata for Sergey Mikhailych at their first meeting. Music is to become a means of communication of lust between the two; the perfect scene-setting, then, for Yulia Chaplina’s fresh performance of the sonata itself. I use the word ‘fresh’ very deliberately, as there was no lingering in the first movement, the whole shaped by a real harmonic sensibility. The superbly prepared Steinway’s bass felt incredibly focused, doubtless the result, too, of Chaplina’s intelligent pedalling. The central movement was charm itself, the finale well-articulated. No Pollini-like volcanic explosions here, instead a more contained, eminently satisfying conclusion to the sonata.
Moving to the Kreutzer Sonata, and a surprise reference from Somerville to ‘The Curse of Strictly’, we move to a text where jealousy is the primary emotion, here directed by Pozdnyshev at the violinist Troukhatchevsky, to whom his wife takes a liking; Troukatchevsky and Pozdnyshev’s wife perform Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata together. The function of music appears to be different in this story: welcoming and exploratory in Family Happiness, it becomes the agent of demise in The Kreutzer Sonata.
Moving to the performance of the sonata, if there is anything one can learn from Liebeck’s recording of the Schoenberg, it is his mastery of his instrument. And the ‘Kreutzer’ itself demands that control right from the off, in its cruelly exposed opening. Liebeck’s stopping was perfectly in tune. The technical demands on the pianist, too, are not inconsiderable, and Chaplina was an absolutely equal partner in this performance, expressive in her chordal responses to Liebeck’s stoppings in the opening Adagio sostenuto, agile, nimble, and always clear of texture in the Presto. And how well Liebeck projected his contribution, richly sonorous in cantabile, and possessed of some of the loudest pizzicati I have ever heard. It would be interesting to learn how regular this partnership between Liebeck and Chaplina is: certainly, it feels locked-in, with a real intuition as to what the other will do. The second movement is a set of variations (in F major), and how heart meltingly beautiful was Liebeck’s statement, taken at the perfect tempo, moving but without any sense of rush. The whole movement was shot through with insight, not least in the move to the minor, a darkening of the utmost emotional impact. Moments of magic abounded before the finale, taken at a proper Presto, burst on the scene, the opening piano gesture massively (and properly) interruptive, the headlong tarantella leavened by tender contrasts.
The whole evening was a triumph. No encore, perhaps rightly as the evening gave us plenty to think about … one thing is for sure, though: more intelligent, thought-provoking evenings of this ilk would be warmly welcomed.
For more about Kings Place click here.