A concert of Beethoven violin sonatas might be thought too much of a good thing. In practice it worked well thanks to the meaningful partnership between Viktoria Mullova and Kristian Bezuidenhout; indeed it would not be unfair to say that it was frequently his contribution which was the more ear-catching.
Beethoven penned few duds, but Opus 23 is hardly one of his more inspired works – in fairness, Tully Potter refers to it as “often-scorned”. This unpretentious work served well enough as an opener. However Mullova and Bezuidenhout brought a weight and intensity to this discursive music which might have been more in place in ‘late’ Beethoven. There were compensations. The dry fortepiano was highly effective in clarifying textures such as the fugal passages in the slow movement, ornamentation was crystal-clear throughout and the all-important pauses were extremely telling.
On an altogether more elevated plane musically was the E flat Sonata from Opus 12 with its sublime slow movement and joyfully skipping finale. Here the crunchy fortepiano bass added a propulsive rhythmic edge to the first movement's climaxes and the musicians precisely located the brief moment of stillness before close. The Adagio has one of those gloriously elevated themes which give it an emotional weight far beyond its relatively brief duration; Mullova spun this out beautifully whilst Bezuidenhout's dry drum-beat bass would have been impossible on a ‘modern’ piano. The finale’s main idea brought a hint of good humour from the normally reserved Mullova although there were a few moments of ferocity. The fortepiano's percussive treble brought some unusual perspectives.
The ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata was more of a mixed bag. It started surprisingly gently, both musicians opting for reflection rather than grandeur and then taking a comparatively relaxed tempo for the Presto. As with the other sonatas the first-movement exposition repeat was taken, in this case with the addition of a link from the violin, and the duo made the most of the moments of stillness. The close brought a moment of unexpected humour when the fortepiano's sustaining mechanism jammed on the very last chord; the look of shock on Bezuidenhout's face (he closely resembles the young Harrison Ford) was something to behold, but fortunately there was a fortepiano doctor in the house! The Andante brought a flowing tempo, too flowing in the initial variations, but later the minor-key one and the coda, which effectively acts as the final variation really got to the heart of the matter. The finale was fast and furious.
As a brief but well-chosen encore the scherzo of the Spring Sonata was similarly rapid and lasted a little over a minute.