Beethoven violin sonata cycle at SummerFest gets off to grand start

Cho-Liang Lin
San Diego Union Tribune

Any composer is lucky to write something that performers want to play and audiences love hearing, but there’s a catch. Their most popular works overshadow their other compositions, no matter how excellent they are.

Take Beethoven. He wrote 10 sonatas for violin and piano. All are worth hearing, but I’ll give you 5-to-1 odds that you’ll get either No. 5 (“Spring”) or No. 9 (“Kreutzer”) on any recital featuring his sonatas.

Enter the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, programming all 10 of his violin sonatas: “Spring,” “Kreutzer,” and the other eight that don’t have catchy nicknames. Festival director Cho-Liang Lin has split the sonatas up between three different violinists (and pianists as well) over the course of 36 hours.

The cycle started off Tuesday evening at UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall with impeccable and thoroughly engaging performances by Lin on violin and Jon Kimura Parker on piano. They played Beethoven’s sixth, seventh and eighth sonatas, originally published together as his Opus 30 with such panache that I doubt a single hoot was given over the absence of either “Kreutzer” or “Spring.”

Lin is one the finest violinists of his generation. His technique is flawless, put to the service of infallible musical taste and what appears to be genuine concern for the intentions of any composer he plays. One never hears Lin and thinks “He simply doesn’t get Beethoven” or “What was he thinking?”

Parker’s frequent appearances in San Diego have established him as a formidable interpreter of the Viennese Classical style. (I’d love to hear him record Haydn). His playing is distinguished by clean finger-work with minimal pedaling, an ideal fit for Mozart and Beethoven.

“Restraint” often has a negative connotation — too staid or cold — but with Parker, perhaps it’s better to describe him as “restrained,” as in holding back strong forces. Throughout much of Tuesday’s concert, his playing was like water just on the verge of boiling — and when the time came for Beethoven to erupt, Parker provided the necessary fury, pushing up to, but never crossing, a sense of being out of control.

This was also a facet of Lin’s approach to Beethoven, and together they kept Allegros simmering, pacing themselves to tear up climactic moments. Their entire performance of Opus 30, No. 2 in C minor — the most dramatic of the three sonatas — found a perfect balance between passion and formal clarity. The piano runs in the slow movement that rip across the placid surface were absolutely frightening. In the third movement, offbeat accents in both parts threatened to tear apart the meter, but culminated in a joyful climax where everything synced up.

Opus 30, No. 1 is Beethoven at his most congenial, cheerfully played by Lin and Parker.

The Sonata in G major, the last of the set, has a gorgeous inner movement that gave Lin a beautiful melody. He rendered this with a generous but tight vibrato and with expressive swells and decrescendos. Parker teased out rhythms, finding opportunities to ever so slightly delay a beat. The final movement is like a folk dance, which both musicians cheerily performed.

Fervent applause produced two curtain calls and a beautiful encore performance of Dvorák’s “Sonatina in G major, Opus 100.”
Read the rest of the review here