Giorgio Koukl | 23 NOV 2020
Friday offered yet another possibility to listen to a live concert in the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. This time the Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta presented an all-Beethoven program with the fifth and last violoncello sonata played by Charae Kruger, violoncello, and Elizabeth Pridgen, piano, and the well known “Kreutzer” violin sonata with David Coucheron, violin, and William Ransom, piano. Quite a challenging program to any music lover.
Among the five cello sonatas Beethoven has written, the final two are often regarded as linked to the last piano sonatas, those with opus numbers higher than 100. Surely a period where Beethoven explored very unusual ways to write music, which in my opinion was never done afterwards by any other composer.
The Violoncello Sonata in D major op. 102 No. 2, while not having much in common with the pure experimentation of, let’s say, the “Hammerklavier” Piano Sonata, is nevertheless a difficult and complicated work.
Violoncellist Kruger was impressive from the first bars with her warm and elegant sound, perfectly captured by the microphones. All musical choices were easily understandable, the dynamics together with the piano excellent and the dynamical range well chosen. Both musicians played the energetic, and with its six minutes duration only a relatively short, first movement in a convincing way. Even after listening to what is today considered the “golden standard,” the recordings of Rostropovich/Richter or Maiski/Argerich, their way of interpretation was in no way of lesser quality. The pianist Pridgen was particularly at her ease in the slow and quite dark second movement. Her small reactions to underline the leading melody went quite smoothly, a thing which is too often not appreciated enough. In chamber music it’s not just about playing the right note in the right moment, as a small rubato when made with elegance can help enormously. The two ladies apparently enjoyed this small play greatly, adding much grace to the movement.
When the explosive last movement came, it was definitely the highlight of the whole concert. What Beethoven is asking here from the pianist is far beyond usual level of difficulty, maybe due also to the fact that when writing this sonata he was already completely deaf and play no more himself. The ladies showed secure and powerful technique.
The well-known Sonata for Violin op. 47 in A-major (“Kreutzer”) was considered at the time of its release, probably 1803, “extravagant and incomprehensible” and this even by the dedicatee, the French musician Rodolphe Kreutzer. The difficulties for the piano are far beyond the usual level of sonatas of that time; maybe it was for that reason that Beethoven chose a cryptic title of “Sonata per Pianoforte con Violino Obbligato.”
Pianist Willian Ransom explained in his brief but highly informative introduction the story of the original dedication to George August Polgreen Bridgetower, which was erased by a furious and resentful Beethoven in favor of Kreutzer. All this because of an Italian countess Giulietta Guicciardi, a piano student of Beethoven who was probably also a sort of “dream of an ideal woman” to him to the point that he dedicated to her the well-known “Moonlight” piano sonata. Probably just a nice story, who knows?
The violinist, David Coucheron, who I already had the pleasure to hear and appreciate in the previous Sunday concert by the Georgian Chamber Players, and pianist Ransom started the slow introduction with precision and passion. Here I noticed the unfortunately not so well tuned piano and, the piano being a leading instrument and not just accompanying, its “too distant” sound.
The first movement had a nice energy, precise rhythm and very good and logical tempo changes. It suffered from a little slowing down from the original and well-chosen tempo of the beginning, but overall was very energetic and satisfactory.
The variations of the second movement are sometimes a real display of piano virtuosity, for example the last one with some nice cascades of repeated notes and trills, so beautiful to listen but so terrible to learn and play. Here the pianist was at his complete ease and really impressive.
The last movement: a tarantella played in a very high tempo, showed all the qualities of both musicians. The double octaves went perfectly balanced, a special mention is due to Mr. Coucheron who never, even in the highest tempo, lost his typical hallmark: a perfect intonation; not an easy task. The musicians have chosen here to cut the repetition, of course this can be made, but until then they played all other repetitions present in the score. Anyway, having played this sonata less than 60 days before myself, I suffered all the way through with the pianist, knowing what is being asked in jumps, quick staccato notes and rhythmical precision, all this with a face mask which surely is not ideal to freely breathe. After the sonata finished, Ransom still had the strength to say a few words about the upcoming concert on December 4.
In this second concert I am following from distance, once again the chamber music scene of Atlanta proved all its vitality, a reservoir of very good musicians and willingness to continue on this path despite all the difficulties of this particular moment. Surely this choice will be useful for the future and attract some new and young musicians to this particular world of music. ■