With violin and piano sonatas, there is a special closeness performers have to achieve – with each other and with their audience. There is more exposed, more at stake, when only two people command a concert. Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti and pianist Klára Würtz, performing Beethoven’s sonatas over two evenings, created a distinct familiarity with the music, the audience, and the art as the conclusion to Da Camera of Houston’s Menil Collection season.

Kristóf Baráti © Marco Borggreve
Kristóf Baráti
© Marco Borggreve
Opening with a brushed forte-piano chord in the E flat major sonata, Baráti and Würtz quickly showed their adeptness turning Beethoven’s quick lines into easy gestures. Together, they understand the meaning of the phrase, the weight of good articulation, and the importance of the space between notes.

Looking at Baráti, he is a stoic and conservative performer whose biggest visual expression comes with an occasional eyebrow raise. But to close your eyes and listen to Baráti, he manifests as a supremely emotive performer. His experience with solo violin work – the height of exposed vulnerability for the instrument – is evident particularly in the slow movements. Baráti is not afraid to let his sound get raw, and he does not shy away from a long note. Sometimes the result comes across as thin, rather than the rich thickness hoped for from the high register of the violin, but I realized by the Spring Sonata I was misunderstanding him as a performer. With vibrato as a tool to wield at will and not a crutch to hide behind, the Adagio molto espressivo of the “Spring” Sonata was an especially reverent encounter.

In comparison to Baráti, Würtz is a lively pianist. She feels the keys, the floor, the reverberations, as if her body was not separate. Lightly descending the arc of a phrase, she smiles. Technically agile and emotionally diverse, she knows Beethoven well enough to give his work her own particular flare. The fast scales in Rondo, Allegro molto of the E flat sonata, under her hands, were a graceful prance; alternatively, the soft chords that open the Adagio con molta espressione of the same sonata were gentle, muted and respectful. 

The space of the Menil presents a challenge to any performer, but I imagine it is particularly difficult for the heft of the piano during delicate runs. The Menil concerts take place in the main space of the intimate museum, which branches out into a long hallway on both sides and has wood floors and seats throughout. The acoustics, depending on where you are, vary to say the least. At times is sounded as if Würtz overestimated the pedal, but it is hard to say given the environment. 

Together, Baráti and Würtz make an unconventional ensemble. Peeling the arpeggios away in the Allegro moderato of the G major “Cockcrow” Sonata, the two acted as one instrument. It is clear that they know something of each other that we do not, an intimacy that is exciting in a chamber concert. Once or twice, though, they seemed to miss a connection with a downbeat or the end of a phrase when one would arrive before the other. But these moments of detach were rare and quickly sewn back together.

Ending with the Poco Allegretto of the G major sonata, Baráti and Würtz rolled and conquered, handing those intentional chords back and forth with natural elegance. The ending of the movement, complete with a key change, felt like a summary of everything – a quick rise from piano chords to forte scales, a surprise fall into a Poco adagio, and then a Presto to wrap the last eight measures. It was an adventure, a satisfying rounding out, that only Baráti and Würtz with their unique pairing, could really pull off.