Jacques Israelievitch and his Beethoven Violin Sonata Marathon reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, June 21, 2009, Gallery 345, Toronto.

Beethoven’s ten sonatas for piano and violin, over shadowed from the composer’s time until the present by his symphonies, quartets and piano sonatas, are beginning to come into their own with critics as well as performers.

Jacques Israelievitch, veteran concertmaster (now retired) of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has undertaken the extraordinary initiative of presenting all ten sonatas in one marathon eight hour performance (breaks included). For this performance, and for a repeat performance in Chautauqua N.Y. in July, Mr. Israelievitch has partnered with an outstanding pianist, Kanae Matsumoto. Ms. Matsumoto’s playing was unfailingly crisp, warm and sensitive throughout the fiendishly difficult piano parts of two sonatas of the final set that I was able to attend.

Sonata No.9 in A Major, Op. 47 “Kreutzer”(1803) opens with a feverish movement that inspired Tolstoy to fictionalize it in his story The Kreutzer Sonata as an example of the power music has to release murderous rage in an individual. A slow, brooding, introduction in the violin’s low register creates a mood of raw, earthy passion, edged with a determined harshness. Then the piano rolls in behind the wild flourishes of violin and together they run a furious steeplechase that I found totally exhilarating. Both players bring enough virtuosity to dazzle in the technically demanding parts, complex chords, cadenzic interludes, breaks in rhythm, and changes in tempo.

The Andante that follows opens with a wonderfully lyrical piano passage that feels like a lover calling—like the voice of Echo calling to Narcissus. Beethoven develops this theme in variations ranging through moods of triple metre playfulness, minor key meditation, followed by an airy, ornamental part that resolves into solemnity that itself dissolves in the carefree coda.

The Rondo Finale is a hell-bent-for leather tarantella that recalls the first movement. The raw, gritty, dark-edged vigour of the violin contrasts with the crisp, precise, subtle, lighthearted dance of the piano. It is noticeable that this work from the early Vienna stage of Beethoven’s career (just before the Eroica) shows his innovation in making the violin part equal in importance to the piano.

The Violin Sonata No. 10, Op. 96 (1812) belongs to the post-heroic middle period of the Archduke Trio where Beethoven has shifted the focus of his chamber music away from the sweeping symphonic ideal towards a more pastoral lyricism.  Israelievitch’s tone in the arcadian idyll of the first movement matches more closely the refined warmth of Matsumoto. The players begin to feel like a duo. The music is restorative.

In the elegaic Adagio, repeated patterns of the piano create an obsessive tension over which the breathy bowing of the violin indicate a very human suggestion of grieving a loss, perhaps the loss of certainty that life will go on without interruption. The Scherzo and concluding Poco Allegro provide a kind of toe-tapping release of tension that changes places with moods that include the slow, sombre and the gruff qualities of the earlier Kreutzer Op.47. The concluding measures are a brisk, lightfooted dance.

It is always a privilege to hear chamber music in a space like Gallery 345 which combines the feeling of public concert hall with the up close and personal intimacy of a private room or ‘chamber’.  A space like this works wonders for the imagination during a first rate recital, like this Beethoven Violin Sonata Marathon. Your next chance to hear the duo Israelievitch/Matsumoto perform it is on July 19, in Chautauqua, NY.

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