Brilliant virtuosity at Ben’s Theater

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Sittichai Pengcharoen (left) performs with Eri Nakagawa. (Photo/Ben Hansen)
Sittichai Pengcharoen (left) performs with Eri Nakagawa. (Photo/Ben Hansen)

In January 1828, the Czech violinist Josef Slavík and pianist Carl Maria von Bocklet gave the first performance of Schubert’s incredibly difficult Fantasie for violin and piano at the Landhaussaal in Vienna. Slavík was one of the finest violinists of his day and was considered on a par with Paganini. The work was designed to display Slavik’s brilliant technique and even the piano part has been described by the Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky as “the most difficult music ever written for the piano”.

It’s a long, complex work and absolutely crammed with notes. The premiere proved too much for the notoriously fickle Viennese audience. The hall gradually emptied and even the local music critic crept away before the end. Despite this inauspicious start the Fantasia has become one of the staples of the advanced violin repertoire.

It was a pleasure to hear the work recently at Ben’s Theater in Jomtien where, I was pleased to observe, none of the audience attempted an early departure. The work was the opening item in a recital given by violinist Sittichai Pengcharoen and pianist Eri Nakagawa both of whom are among the most respected musicians in Thailand. The opening of the Schubert was magical with the sustained melody and warm violin tone. The technical assurance during this huge work was impressive and the closing section was triumphant bringing an enthusiastic response from the audience.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Clara Schumann. She was of course the wife of the composer Robert Schumann and in her day, she was considered one of the most distinguished musicians in the country. One of the last works she composed for piano was entitled Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 20. The theme in question is from one of her husband’s many piano pieces and Clara presented the work to him on his forty-third birthday in 1853.

Eri Nakagawa gave a telling performance of this compelling music and a powerful one at that. After the initial theme, there are seven variations and sometimes a few hints of Brahms and Chopin. Performing entirely from memory, Eri played expressively with a wide range of dynamics and she seemed to savour the magic moments in Clara Schumann’s evocative harmonies.

In complete contrast, Sittichai Pengcharoen then played one of the solo violin sonatas by the Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe. His name is less well-known today but in his time he was regarded as “The King of the Violin”. Ysaÿe wrote the six sonatas in 1923 and some of them reflect the characteristics of early twentieth century music. Each sonata was dedicated to one of Ysaÿe’s contemporary violinists. Sittichai Pengcharoen played the three-movement Sonata No. 4 in E minor which the composer dedicated to Fritz Kreisler. It’s a challenging work to play, yet Sittichai provided a confident and thoughtful performance.

The highlight of the concert was undoubtedly Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 for Piano and Violin in A major, known almost universally by its nickname, “The Kreutzer Sonata.” Like the Schubert Fantasia, the Beethoven is known for both its technical challenges and its sheer length. The work might easily have become known as “The Bridgetower Sonata” because it was originally dedicated to George Bridgetower, a Polish-born violinist who lived and worked in Britain.

On 24th May 1803, Beethoven and Bridgetower gave the first performance of the sonata at the imposing Augarten Palace in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna. The ink was barely dry on the paper and the violinist, who had never seen the work before was sight-reading the frighteningly difficult solo part. During the second movement, Bridgetower had to peer over Beethoven’s shoulder to read the scruffy hand-written piano copy. The performance was probably not entirely faultless. However, after the concert Bridgetower allegedly insulted a woman who was an acquaintance of Beethoven. The composer was furious and broke off relations with Bridgetower. He instead dedicated the work to the violin virtuoso Rudolphe Kreutzer, who considered the sonata to be “outrageously unintelligible”. Kreutzer never played it, but the name stuck.

Sittichai and Eri gave a terrific performance of the work and they impressed the audience with an impeccable sense of ensemble. The opening movement was tense and taught, full of raw energy and intensely rhythmic. The brooding slow movement with its increasingly difficult variations was beautifully judged. There were many magic moments. The two musicians launched into the Finale at a hair-raising tempo and managed to keep up the driving energy throughout the movement. It was a real edge-of-the-seat experience and Sittichai and Eri captivated the audience with brilliant and sparkling virtuosity. The closing moments were truly heroic and brought the work to a triumphant climax.