Mozart – Violin Sonata in B-flat major, KV 454
Beethoven – Violin Sonata no.7 in C minor, op.30 no.2
Ravel – Violin Sonata in G major
Tchaikovsky – ‘Méditation’ from Souvenir d’un lieu cher, op.42
Sarasate – Introduction and Tarantella, op.43
Joshua Bell (violin)
Sam Haywood (piano)
The programme above, with Mozart and Beethoven sonatas in the first part and the other pieces in the second, looked odd on paper and proved so in practice. Performances were split accordingly, with distinctly unimpressive Classical works followed by a much improved second group following the interval.
The Mozart sonata, KV 454, opened promisingly, with a properly expansive Largo introduction. Joshua Bell applied nice touches of portamento and generally phrased well. Thereafter – and this set the pattern for the rest of the sonata – the tempo was simply too fast; Mozart reacts poorly to being hurried. Sam Haywood’s rendition of the piano part had its moments of passion, but there was too much Meissen china. Likewise, Bell had some fine moments, not least some beautiful playing on the G string, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. The slow movement was more song than aria, its piano part strikingly matter of fact, nowhere more so than in the startling prosaic broken chords; what magic should be here. Greater pathos emerged with the turn to the minor mode, but it was not fully integrated. I am not sure I have ever heard so fast an Allegretto as the finale; it sounded more akin to an Allegro – at least. Where the conclusion to this movement should astonish in the diminution of note values, so fast a tempo pre-empted surprise. It was not just a matter of tempo; there was an impetuous, even showy aggression that sounded quite out of place in Mozart. As Stravinsky once commented on a typically hard-driven Solti performance, ‘Mozart is poorer than that’. By which, of course, he meant that Mozart is richer than that.
The Beethoven sonata likewise opened promisingly, with a sense of ebb and flow. It quickly became clear, however, that Beethovenian cragginess would be conspicuous by its absence, the performance veering between Romantic-virtuosic show and pseudo-eighteenth-century preciousness. In the slow movement, Haywood’s piano opening utterly lacked the requisite noble simplicity. Phrases were fussily broken up and the tempo was once again too fast, extraordinarily so for a movement marked Adagio cantabile: this sounded like an Andante – at least. The Beethovenian sublime was nowhere to be heard. Playful and aggressive, the scherzo marked a noteworthy improvement, though it was rather late in the day and arguably overdone. The finale proved excessively, externally ‘passionate’, leaving little room for structural backbone. As with much of the sonata, it never sounded like Beethoven.
Ravel celebratedly disdained interpretation in favour of performance, at least in terms of his music. A pose? Perhaps, but he certainly permits less license, seemingly benefiting this duo, who instantly sounded more at home in Ravel’s G major violin sonata. Bell’s tone was straightforwardly gorgeous, and, more to the point, appropriate to the work. The modal piano passages sounded midway between the Middle Ages and the jazz age – which is to say, they sounded Ravelian. Perhaps the performance was a bit smooth at times, but it marked a great improvement. The slow movement was more bluesy, less Romantic than is often the case: nothing wrong with that. There was aggression too, some of the violin part sounding startlingly, revealingly close to Bartók, for the music, thank goodness, was never sentimentalised. The finale brought a similar kinship to the G major Piano Concerto and furthered that tension, as opposed to collaboration, between piano and violin: a hallmark of the sonata as a whole.
Tchaikovsky’s Méditation sounded, at its best, like a missing aria from Eugene Onegin, though there were strange moments of disconnection between violin and piano: perhaps a hangover from the Ravel? Bell took the opportunity nevertheless to lavish his rich tone, upon the music, greatly to its benefit. As for Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella, the piece does not amount to anything much, but nor does it outstay its welcome. Bell despatched it as to the manor born. Every difficulty thrown at him he turned into an opportunity, evincing a true stylistic affinity lacking in the first ‘half’ of the programme. In a nod to this year’s Chopin anniversary, the players gave an encore arrangement of the C-sharp minor Nocturne. On this evidence, the music gains nothing and loses a great deal from such arrangement, but Bell gave his admirers further opportunity to swoon.