Benjamin Beilman (violin) and Huw Watkins (piano) at Freemasons’ Hall, Dublin, on 13 December 2015
Appropriately for a Christmas concert, this recital takes place in the reliably festive surroundings of the Freemasons’ Hall. The chessboard carpet, blue walls, and massive portraits of the over-dressed Grand Masons of yesteryear easily make it Dublin’s most eccentric chamber music venue. The Alice-in-Wonderland surroundings soon fade, however, as this recital begins to take hold, and Benjamin Beilman (violin) and Huw Watkins (piano) present a programme that is anything but lightweight.
The opening Sonata in A by Schubert is nicknamed ‘Grand Duo’ with good reason, and both players take to it with a strong sense of drive, direction and balance. They are each sensitive to tone colour as well, and the warmth of Watkins’ playing is an effective foil to Beilman’s smooth and supple style. Projecting the many moods of the music, their playing is crisp in the fast ‘scherzo’, then sweetly expressive in the melodic ‘andante’.
The backbone of the recital is provided by the two great modernist sonatas that close each half – Janácek in the first, then Ravel in the second. These works offer the best of each player. The Janácek especially is given a powerful reading, with intensity and grit. The jarring final movement, with its forceful bowing effects – Beilman suggests that they are to evoke the sound of distant gunfire – is a tour-de-force, dramatic but also deeply personal. The quirky blues of Philip Martin’s Homer Blues elicits some sensuous playing, and at times ripe tuning, from Beilman. Its anticipation of the powerful ‘Blues’ movement in the Ravel Sonata is also a superb piece of programming.
In this closing work Ravel’s alleged argument that violin and piano are fundamentally incompatible is reflected in the cool detachment that each player brings to this work, bringing out the separate character of their respective roles. Beilman creates a lean sound, free of vibrato; as well, his smart use of bowing effects help project a sense of poised drama.
The modernism of the programme is, however, a difficult match for Bach’s Partita No. 3 that opens the second half, which Beilman performs on stage alone. While there is much to admire in his slick passagework, there are moments when the speeds chosen are perhaps a little too quick for his own technique, resulting in a brittle tone in the highest notes. This shallowness of approach sadly detracts from what is otherwise an impressive programme. By the end, however, with the triumph of the Ravel, many in the audience rise to their feet.
Franz Schubert: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major D.574, ‘Grand Duo’
Leoš Janácek: Violin Sonata
J.S. Bach: Partita No. 3 in E major for solo violin, BWV1006
Philip Martin: Homer Blues (1995)
Maurice Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major
Image of Benjamin Beilman © Giorgia Bertazzi