Viktoria Mullova – Artist in Focus … Schubert & Beethoven with Kristian Bezuidenhout

Rondo brillante in B minor, D895
Sonata in A for Violin and Piano, D574
Sonata in E flat for Piano and Violin, Op.12/3
Sonata in A for Piano and Violin, Op.47 (Kreutzer)

Viktoria Mullova (violin) & Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 25 September, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Viktoria MullovaViktoria Mullova played on her Guadagnini of 1750. Kristian Bezuidenhout, I believe, played on an Austrian fortepiano from 1839 – a recollection I have not managed to double-check.

Mullova explains herself vividly. “I get tired of playing Beethoven in the same way but coming back to this programme with a new instrument is great. I’m using a classical bow with gut strings. The phrasing and the bowing have changed – legato is different.” Further on, she says: ‘How I learn is by talking to musicians and playing with them and Kristian is one of the best around for early music, he’s fantastic.”

Mullova has a clear and sweeping style – vibrato-less, of course. Its diamond-sharp cutting edge has a bright simplicity and directness that she briskly marshals into concurrence – as if she were cleaning some baroque painting, leaving not a speck of dust behind, nor a hint of encroaching patina.

Bezuidenhout, on the other hand, sets out to be more versatile stylistically – as the composers required. The facility for playing dramatic chords in maestoso fashion and then switching to a rippling andante or a bright, skipping harmonised allegro makes the fortepiano a different beast from the baroque violin – warm and, for the most part linear. As Mullova says, “he’s fantastic”. Something of a bear in physical shape and performing style, he complements Mullova’s eagle, padding about on the earth solidly, reliably, engagingly and adroitly while she swoops and soars with piercing, pin-pointed vision.

Kristian Bezuidenhout. Photograph: Paul MillerWhat of the sounds do they make together?

In the first few bars of Schubert’s Rondo brillante, one of the dangers appeared – the violin overrode the fortepiano’s modest volume. Thereafter, Mullova quietened her playing, in accommodation. The fortepiano trundled a keen, perky line, virtually non-pedalled, giving it a staccato-like jingle. The resulting performance has therefore to be faster than could otherwise be the case – more ‘classical’ and detached, less nuanced. Bezuidenhout excelled here, actually pushing against the constraints of the fortepiano, pressing it into becoming more beguiling, nuanced and expressive.

However, any forthright statement – intended as imposing, commanding or arresting – sounded ineffectual to modern ears, a strangulated unimpressive twang. This was a limitation of the instrument. Where the liaison came off best was in passages of flowing melody or light-footed scampering; Mullova could display her new-found legato, at mezzo-forte rather than forte, the pianoforte scampering along amiably beside her.

The first half was Schubert’s; Beethoven followed. This made sense. The Schubert works are slight in content, though holding their own in bravura. Setting them directly alongside Beethoven’s dynamic pursuit – or following it – would have done them no favours.

But, I did not feel drawn-in to this concert, experiencing myself as if placed firmly behind a plate-glass window, permitted to merely observe highly competent professionals going about their business, engaged and undisturbed.

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