St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church , in the Hope Valley section of Durham, is one of the best venues for chamber music in the region. The area has produced more than its share of musical talent, and two of its favorite sons, violinist Nicholas Kitchen and pianist Andrew Tyson, were on hand for the first of three annual concerts encompassing the complete sonatas for violin and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven. The late afternoon sun set the sanctuary’s modern stained glass ablaze in an auspicious start of the all-Beethoven cycle.

The concert series’ pre-concert lectures, usually presented by Joseph Kitchen, are well worth attending. On this occasion his son Nicholas and Tyson presented a demonstration of how Beethoven’s economic use of three marks ― slur, dot, and dynamic ― were superior to later, well-intentioned “corrections” in printed scores. Kitchen has pioneered the application of using full scores or composers’ manuscripts on lap top computers instead of printed scores limited to each instrument’s part. The duo played excerpts, contrasting the printed score with Beethoven’s manuscript markings. Kitchen said these reflected the composer’s experience of working closely with the “research” string quartet provided by his patron Count Andreas Razumovsky. Tyson provided an example of the composer’s detail, a passage in which each of the pianist’s hands has a separate, different slur mark!

The Sonata No. 1 in D, Op. 12, No. 1, provided a lively opening for the concert. Kitchen’s succinct program notes drew attention to the first movement’s “energetic unison arpeggios,” a “gentle off-beat singing line in the violin” underpinned by a “slow regular set of chords” in the piano’s bass. The middle movement’s set of variations is followed by a lively finale featuring “an off-beat accent right at the beginning of the theme” leading to the “teasing texture” and “playful suspense” of the closing. The stormy middle of the first movement of Sonata No. 5 in F, Op. 24, gives the lie to the sonata’s nickname, “Spring.” The second movement is full of repose and features an aria-like theme and “many chromatic alterations.” The humorous third movement leads to the last movement which contrasts “spring-like smiling” with “dark drama.” The concert concluded with a breathtaking performance of Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2, a clear product of the composer’s maturity. Minor keys always brought out the best in Beethoven. The first movement begins deceptively quietly but builds to its close with a musical tidal wave. The second movement is one of the composer’s finest. Off-beat accents contribute to the humor in the third movement. The last movement is a craggy monument of half-started thematic themes before roaring to the final “presto.”

The overwhelming first impression of Kitchen’s and Tyson’s performance was of the extraordinary clarity of their playing. Both players produced full, warm tone and precise intonation. The unity and the confident give-and-take of their ensemble were delightful. The First Sonata’s second movement’s variations were unusually engaging because they were so clearly delineated. The beautiful flowing melody of the Fifth Sonata’s slow movement was just a tease for the breath-taking beauty of Seventh Sonata’s “Adagio cantabile” singing line. There was no dust gathered on the Seventh Sonata’s score given Kitchen’s and Tyson’s fiery playing of this mature work. Listeners needed “seat belts” to hang in with the duo as they soared through the fast movements. Future performances of the rest of the sonatas – resuming in the 2012-13 season – ought not to be missed!