United Kingdom Beethoven: Foyle-Štšura Duo (Michael Foyle [violin], Maksim Štšura [piano]). Great Hall, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, 21.7.2021. (CC)
Beethoven – Violin Sonatas: No.3 in E flat, Op.12/3; No.5 in F, Op.24, ‘Spring’; No.7 in C minor, Op.30/2
A concert in the glorious Great Hall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital with its eighteenth-century Flemish ceiling (and approached via a staircase adorned by works by Hogarth): this was a beautiful and spirited ‘Beethoven 251’ event and celebrated the release of the second volume of the Foyle-Štšura Duo’s recordings of Beethoven Violin Sonatas on Challenge Classics. How we missed out on so much live Beethoven due to the pandemic; how refreshing it is to meet him again.
Volume One of the Challenge Classics series took in the first and third of the Op.12 set, the miraculous A minor Sonata, Op.23 and the well-known ‘Spring’ Sonata. Volume Two boasts Op.12/3 and the three sonatas of Op.30. The concert then, spanned the two discs, offering us a ‘Spring” Sonata from the first volume (appropriately performed in evening sunshine) and two from the newly released volume.
While it is customary for violin/piano recitals to have the violinist playing from memory whilst the piano has the dots, the Foyle-Štšura Duo is unusual in that both members play from memory. This adds an extra layer of spontaneity; complete freedom from the score means chamber music connection is at its height – as indeed was the case here.
The Violin Sonata in E flat, Op.12/3 benefitted from Foyle’s beautiful sound. Certainly, the Foyle-Štšura Duo judged the generous acoustic of the Great Hall well, as detail was never obfuscated. The piano part of this sonata’s first movement is particularly challenging – Štšura sounded as if he was playing a lost Beethoven Concerto at times. The two performers work brilliantly as a team, dialogues between violin and piano left hand a joy. The Adagio con molto espressione, in C major, found perfectly placed left-hand piano chords and violin stopping against a cantabile right-hand piano melody, presented in the most elegant fashion before the violin’s silky legato (against a characterful left-hand from Štšura) began the movement’s ruminations. Foyle’s sound is utterly ravishing: his website lists his instrument as a Gennaro Gagliano 1750 violin on loan (what might be described as ‘top second tier’ beneath Strad or Guarneri). The acoustic just supported the fortes of the finale without blurring, another finely judged aspect of this performance; the finale itself was full of explosions of joy, taken at a proper Allegro molto.
The second Sonata, and the one before the short, ten-minute interval, was the famous ‘Spring’ – as Spring-fresh, indeed, as can be, the piece eased into via the gentles of openings. Technically this was faultless, musically it was fully attuned, the performance only blighted by what sounded like a passing helicopter!
The slow movement for the ‘Spring’ was an absolute dream; flowing beautifully, Foyle’s mezza voce ‘comments’ to the piano melody at the opening appearing as smoky, whispered intimacies; later, Štšura created the most magical web of sound. In contrast, the mischievous Scherzo (blink and you miss it) and the Rondo finale took us to firmer ground, with the latter sounding perhaps more resolute that it does on their Challenge Classics recording. And – not the performer’s fault I feel – violin pizzicati really did not carry well.
Post-interval was the C minor Violin Sonata, the second of the Op.30 set. Cast in one of Beethoven’s favourite keys, the Allegro con brio carried much dynamism (and kudos to Šyšura for not letting the semiquaver neighbour-note figures sound like a rattle). The shifting moods of Beethoven’s landscape were beautifully tracked, the rapid speed in maximal contrast to the tender Adagio cantabile, the tempo slow but still moving, perfectly judged (and just a touch quicker than on the disc?). Here, an almost phantasmagoric mood was conjured, long, blanched violin notes destabilising any temporary plateaux of calm. It was the gestural nature of the Scherzo that marked this as a special performance, as was the link to the finale. Again, gesture – rhetoric – was beautifully conveyed, a full acknowledgement of Beethoven’s daring writing here.
One encore: Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit in a lovely, silky performance, Foyle’s legato G-string melody a joy.