Beethoven isn’t just the peak of classical music. He’s a whole mountain range, with numerous crags, crests and escarpments for ambitious musicians to scale.
That’s what violinist Maria Larionoff and pianist Robin McCabe will be doing Sunday when they take on Beethoven’s violin sonatas No. 1, 4, 5 and 8. It’s the first in a three-concert series called “The Beethoven Project” in which they’ll explore all 10 of his violin sonatas. The two women started out playing music together for fun, eventually staged a concert, then made it an annual event.
Sunday’s concert marks their fifth recital as a violin-piano duo. Larionoff is the former concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony. McCabe is a celebrated recitalist who’s a University of Washington professor of music, heading the keyboard division. Together they make a glorious musical team.
The two can also be quite a pair of cut-ups. Last year, between performing pieces by Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Mendelssohn, McCabe went off on a tangent about how Larionoff had wonderful music composed around her name (“Ave Maria” and Bernstein’s “West Side Story” classic, to name just two) while all McCabe had going for her was “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.”
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Her extravagant sense of injury over this had her audience in stitches, before she and Larionoff got back to dazzling musical business.
Interviewed last week in McCabe’s UW office, both were quick to laugh, passionate about their work and, in McCabe’s case, happy to dash to the piano to demonstrate a musical point or two.
Surprisingly, neither of them has performed all 10 Beethoven violin sonatas before, making this cycle as much a discovery for them as for audiences. An extensive rehearsal period, they say, has let them find things in the sonatas that might not be apparent at first glance.
“We’re able to do things with the music that we probably couldn’t have done a couple of months ago,” McCabe says. “It’s a gestation thing: the repertoire really needs it. There are pieces that one can digest more quickly as a performer. But this music is so implicative on so many levels. There’re so many relationships. It’s so coherently organized that to do it justice just demands a lot from us.”
The demands the sonatas make don’t concern just technique but the character of each piece.
“I think as you get older, you have more of an appreciation of the difficulty,” Larionoff says. “I used to play some of them as a kid. I remember playing some of them by memory at recitals and thinking, ‘Aw, that’s not hard. How hard is that?’ … Now, as I get older, I realize how arrogant that was.”
The violin sonatas are unusual, compared with the string quartets or piano sonatas, in that they don’t span the length of the composer’s career. Apart from the 10th sonata, composed in 1812, they all were written between 1797 and 1803 — what McCabe calls his “early-middle” period.
Anyone picturing a herculean Beethoven, shaking his fists at the heavens, may be taken aback, McCabe says, by some of the delicacies in the violin sonatas. In fact, playing certain passages with the right “feathery” softness on the violin and piano, while still projecting, is the biggest challenge of the music.
“It’s more of an effort, it’s more of a discipline,” Larionoff agrees.
“It’s much easier to play loud than it is to play soft,” McCabe says. “That’s one of the curses of being a pianist: that it’s too easy to make a sound on the instrument. Sometimes I’ll tease a student, ‘How do you think the piano feels after you just beat it up like that? It needs a trip to the spa!’ ”
When asked if it’s possible that Beethoven’s deafness liberated his sense of what sounds were feasible on the piano, McCabe concedes it could be so.
“Those long trills in the piano sonatas … Supposedly, that was his aching to keep the sound continuing on the piano, where the sound dies.”
Immediately the mischievous glint is back in her eyes.
“All our sounds die,” she says with exaggerated despair. Then she nods toward Larionoff: “She gets to keep the bow going, and all our sounds die. It’s very depressing, actually.”
What qualities of the violin sonatas made Larionoff and McCabe want to take them on?
“The emotional scope, I think, of them,” McCabe says.
“And the intellectual scope,” Larionoff counters. “They’re challenging but they’re so rewarding. When they go well — when you play them well — it’s really the most rewarding thing to do.”
“We’re commenting on Beethoven,” McCabe concludes, “as well as hopefully reproducing him. … You look at Beethoven’s sketchbooks, and it looks like the battle of Waterloo — the cross-outs and the smudges. It was an incredible process.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com