Coping with crisisLudwig van Beethoven, a titan of a composer, is revered for his large-scale works, sweeping romanticism, and extensive body of work. His compositions span genres and ensemble styles, and his 250-year legacy is being celebrated globally with concerts large and small (in varying formats during 2020-21’s unique challenges). One smaller-scale project that was no less refined or delightful was a violin sonata series by ECU’s Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival: “The Beethoven Project.” Ara Gregorian, violin, and Thomas Sauer, piano, decided to present Beethoven’s entire library of ten violin sonatas in a series of five virtual concerts over several months. (There were, in fact, other concerts in between, as well as some really interesting interviews with the performers that were released throughout, and these are available to watch on-demand on the organization’s YouTube channel.)

The first six sonatas took place February 12-14, and then I was grateful to be able to watch “The Final Four” over the weekend of May 14-16. These two livestreamed concerts each presented two of these monumental chamber works, offering the opportunity to showcase a tremendous amount of teamwork in two powerful performances.

Friday evening’s program began with Sonata No. 8 in G, Op. 30, No. 3, and its cheerful opening Allegro Assai. The violin and piano lines are inexorable and complex, but not too much so that the beautiful exploration of melody becomes too pedantic. This is chamber music at its best; Gregorian and Sauer exemplified the joyful partnership of making music for music’s sake side-by-side. Throughout the Tempo di Minuetto, the melodies were regal and stately, just dipping a toe into miniature cadenzas and harmonically diverting jaunts – making the moments of brief syncopation all the more compelling in their nest of delicate lines. In the third movement, Allegro Vivace, the lines were dazzlingly fleet and almost impeccably clear.

The camera angles made sure to do justice to some particularly impressive moments without being too distracting. It was nice to get to see some of the more interesting angles and rotate about the stage a bit: Sauer’s fingers could be seen flying over the keys of the piano, and the side-by-side view over the open lid of the piano was especially gratifying because both men’s faces and body language was very clear. The nonverbal communication and well-rehearsed synergy between the players was obvious and impressive.

Unfortunately, the balance was a little off and the violin’s resonance didn’t always come through – but that probably had more to do with the digital format. The depth of timbre through this kind of stream typically just doesn’t sound the same as a live performance in a concert hall that is designed to be acoustically satisfying. (As a side note, this concert was streamed from A.J. Fletcher Music Center in Greenville, while Sunday’s was streamed from Raleigh’s Hayes-Barton United Methodist Church; both are “home” venues for the usual live Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival.)

Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47, nicknamed “Kreutzer” after the dedicatee of the work, is much more substantial, both in length and difficulty. There are rumors that Rodolphe Kreutzer never even attempted the piece and called it “outrageously unintelligible.” Kreutzer’s name, interestingly, was used in several subsequent works of music and prose, and has become “synonymous with passion, infidelity, and the power of music to make people lose control.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this use was inspired in some part by Sonata No. 9, as it is full of contrasting motion and a variety nearly unbridled emotional outbursts.

Sauer and Gregorian were dazzling in this work, sensitive to the varying contrasts between restrained and melodramatic, hymnlike and wild, ornamented and pensive. This work could have been a concert all its own for its length and difficulty, but the players seemed to have unending reserves of energy and delight. The adrenaline was palpable through the screen, although slightly sobered by the jarring lack of applause as the work came to its triumphant close.

A Sunday matinee closed out this project with the remaining two sonatas, Nos. 7 and 10. The video and audio quality were lower than Friday’s livestream, resulting in a few distracting moments of audio “sizzle” and choppy video, but the performance quality remained high. Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2, began pleasantly with dramatic chords, contrasting with the second movement’s aria-like sensitivity and the third movement’s flirty playfulness. The Finale movement was stunning in the performers’ use of contrasts, exploring different rhythmic textures and moods in an increasingly stormy urgency.

Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, was dedicated to Beethoven’s student Archduke Rudolph Johannes Joseph Rainier of Austria, who premiered the work with violinist Pierre Rode. The opening movement with its ubiquitous trilled melody is a little nostalgic, sounding Classical with understated, bubbling emotion that ebbs and flows much more gradually than some of Beethoven’s more dramatic motives. Sauer’s playing was reverent and rich, under Gregorian’s plaintive and singing lines. The third and fourth movements, while tamer in the way they resolved the end of the work (rather than coming rushing and crashing to the end like Sonata No. 9!), played with tension and release, building emotion harmonically before a joyful, energetic closing.

Hearing these two players work together to such a degree was an absolute joy. Cheers to the performers, production team, and everyone who was involved in keeping Four Seasons running this year, even in this digital format. While we all yearn for the palpable energy of live performances, this program still managed to pull off a high level of artistry on a digital platform. On a personal note, it was also really nice to get to “attend” this program in Greenville from the comfort of my couch in Chapel Hill – not just one concert, but a full weekend of music to boot!