Sunday matinee concerts can be a challenge to draw in a crowd, and on an unusually balmy day in Spring, the odds were stacked even higher than normal. Originally planned for the main auditorium, the Leonard-Tinney duo moved to the more intimate venue of the John Field Room which seats up to three hundred. While this was an even more apt performing space for Beethoven’s violin sonatas, it was a shame that more people did not hear what turned out to be one of the highlights of 2014 so far.

Hugh Tinney and Catherine Leonard © Colm Hogan
Hugh Tinney and Catherine Leonard
© Colm Hogan

Recognised as one of Ireland’s foremost violin and piano duo, Catherine Leonard and Hugh Tinney have been touring internationally since 2001. This concert marks the first in a series of three where all ten Beethoven violin sonatas are being performed. As Leonard stated in her opening remarks, the duo have been performing these Beethoven sonatas for over ten years and the three sonatas performed today oozed with a combination of familiarity and freshness.

While Beethoven produced the ten sonatas during a relatively short period, there is a huge development of style and approach to the genre. We were served a wide cross-section this afternoon: the vigorous Violin Sonata no. 1 in D major paired with the charming Sonata no. 8 in G major while the famed and monumental “Kreutzer” Sonata no. 9 in A major was the sole item in the second half.

Right from the opening chords, I was struck how Leonard poured her heart into every note. Here is a violinist who comes across with little fear, attacking the treacherous double-stops with bravura; at times producing a vigorous, meaty, Beethovenian sound, at other times a warm lyricism. As fine a violinist as Beethoven was, he was an even better pianist and so the piano part in these sonatas demands as much from the pianist as does his solo piano sonatas. Tinney was more than up for the challenge providing a crisp, sparsely pedalled accompaniment that provided a fine, sensitive balance to Leonard – never an easy thing with a nine foot Steinway open on full stick at close quarters. One can easily appreciate how this first sonata must have shocked Viennese society at the time who criticized it for its modulations and its ‘perversities’. Both Leonard and Tinney revelled in these strange modulations which abounded throughout the whole sonata.

The slow second movement in A major showcased the sensitivity of both in listening to one another. Even while the piano had the main part, Leonard never once stopped communicating, as Tinney provided some finely shaped phrasing. In the sequential passages, ideas were started by one and taken over seamlessly by the other. The final movement rondo was imbued with rough Beethovenian humour with characteristic offbeat accents and startlingly sudden key changes.

It is not too hard to see why the Violin Sonata no. 8 in G major has been called a ‘charmer’. From its scale-arpeggiated opening (a pitfall for the violinist, in particular, which Leonard carried off with aplomb) to its cheerful finale, it is an utterly captivating work. Leonard attacked her rapid passagework in the first movement with a suitable feistiness while Tinney gave a delightfully ironic twist with a subtle accent to the dance time of the second movement. The third movement was so full of vigorous humour that Leonard’s bow twice shed hairs under the rigorous attack.

The double stops which open the “Kreutzer” Sonata are as celebrated for their profundity as infamous for their formidable difficulty. Leonard nailed the tuning perfectly before launching into the fiery passagework of the first movement proper. The duo captured the visceral brutality inherent in much of this work, while all the time keeping themselves clearly focused on the sweep and trajectory they had in mind for the music. Tinney particularly impressed in the second movement with meticulous, chivalrous playing which always allowed Leonard to sing out the contrapuntal melodies. The finale thrilled with urgency, with Tinney once again opting for sparse pedalling to great effect. The juxtaposition of passion and nonchalance happens in rapid succession and both Leonard and Tinney showed themselves of one mind in these mercurial mood changes. A richly deserved standing ovation followed the conclusion of the first of these concerts. Judging from the form of this one, their next concert in the series will be essential viewing in two weeks time.