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Bella Hristova and Michael Houstoun's splendidly balanced partnership

Violinist Bella Hristova. Photo/Supplied

A young violinist’s dream to make an album with pianist Michael Houstoun pays off.

Bulgarian violinist Bella Hristova and pianist Michael Houstoun, a generation apart in age, discovered what Hristova called a “magical unspoken musical understanding” when they performed together in 2008. They were on a New Zealand tour, part of the violinist’s prize as winner of the 2007 Michael Hill International Violin Competition. Releasing a joint album a decade later is the culmination of Hristova’s dream from that time.

That 2008 tour included what Hristova described as her “first truly significant exposure to Beethoven”, 10 performances of the tempestuous “Kreutzer” Sonata. She could not have asked for a more experienced collaborator, as Beethoven’s music has played a major role in Houstoun’s career, including recordings of the 32 Piano Sonatas (a 14-CD set released in 2014) and, two years ago, the master’s massive Diabelli Variations. Now comes a four-CD set of all 10 of Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano, recorded by the pair.

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Houstoun’s approach to Beethoven is always without pretension or flashiness, letting the music speak for itself. From the first sonata, it’s clear Hristova shares his conception and their ensemble work is impeccable, with rapid, well-matched passage work and shapely melodic lines. The beautiful Adagio of the well-known “Spring” Sonata is one of very few places where that simplicity of style seems a little matter-of-fact. This molto espressivo movement, full of romantic beauty, needs a more poetic and nuanced approach.

Mostly composed between 1797 and 1803, Beethoven’s violin sonatas redefined the form. Longer and more challenging than those of his predecessors, these works are undoubtedly for professional musicians. The piano is elevated by Beethoven to an equal footing with the violin and Houstoun and Hristova are a splendidly balanced partnership, bringing a sense of extended conversation to these marvellously varied works. Both are strong players and deliver the brilliant virtuosity and profound drama that Beethoven frequently demands.

Pianist Michael Houstoun. Photo/Supplied

Hristova has admitted that the moody Sonata No 7 from Opus 30 is her favourite. Written when Beethoven was suffering from the ringing and buzzing in his ears that foreshadowed his deafness, it reflects his angst through the key of C minor, a Masonic symbol of death. Here, the musicians fully capture the passionate drama of the opening, the sorrowful tenderness of the slow movement and the suspenseful Finale in a profound and virtuosic performance.

The Kreutzer opens the fourth disc. This titanic work, symphonic in conception, is the longest sonata and a marvellous vehicle for these musicians. With fire and bounce in the fast sections, a seductive dancing spirit in the variations and an ending of sparkling zest, Hristova and Houstoun demonstrate again the special rapport that makes this significant release a huge listening pleasure.

With Houstoun’s retirement from performing just over a year away, his many fans will treasure his high-quality recordings produced in the past five years.

Beethoven: The Violin Sonatas, Bella Hristova (violin), Michael Houstoun (piano) (Rattle)

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.