At the same time as the Irish leg of the international cycling race Giro d’Italia was passing outside the National Concert Hall, inside Catherine Leonard and Hugh Tinney were finishing the second leg of their Giro di Beethoven. Today’s matinée featured Beethoven’s early violin sonatas, from the second to the fifth, though not in that order. Expectations were high after a superb rendition in the first concert of the series and nor did they disappoint with today’s fare.

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

The first half opened with the chirpy Violin Sonata no. 2 in A major and closed with the famous Spring Sonata no. 5 in F major. The optimism of this half contrasted well with the more dramatic and passionate characteristics of the Violin Sonatas no. 4 in A minor and no. 3 in E flat major heard in the second half. 

Capturing the capriciousness of the grace notes which open Sonata no. 2, Leonard and Tinney revelled in the good-natured banter between the instruments which characterizes much of this movement. If an initial disjointedness ever so slightly marred this dialogue, it was soon swept aside by jocular playing and many effective subito piano phrasing.

What is most admirable in the Leonard Tinney duo is the shared sense of musical vision, something that was amply demonstrated in the second movement of this sonata. The antiphonal phrases were shaped with great delicacy and uncomplicated naturalness, creating a sense of deep peace. The concluding rondo banished this atmosphere in an instant for it to be replaced by one of playfulness. The arpeggios in both the piano and violin part were effortlessly tossed off while Tinney offered some sparkling accompaniment throughout.

The “Spring” Sonata is the first one which Beethoven wrote in four movements and certainly one of the most celebrated. Stylistically, the sonata is on the cusp of Beethoven’s Romantic period as it cleverly evokes the changeability of springtime weather: one moment, gloriously sunny; the next, a torrential downpour. In the lyrical sections, the music seemed to emanate from Leonard as if she was spinning a golden thread of melody only for it be interrupted all of a sudden by a deluge of trills and chords. Much commendation goes to Tinney who, in his sturm und drang sections of loud chords, never once drowned out Leonard, yet still managing to imbue such passages with great passion.

There were many other wondrous moments of intelligent chamber musicianship in this sonata but I will highlight just two. The deftly phrased second movement showcased how well both Leonard and Tinney communicate with one another with great naturalness and simplicity, never forcing the music but enjoying the gloriously slow notes. In the finale, the duo switched effortlessly from the delicate passagework to the more vigorous, virtuosic sections and back again.

Post interval we had the only sonata in a minor key on the programme, the dramatic Sonata no. 4. While I have heard other musicians downplay the dramatic contrast of this sonata, Leonard and Tinney tackled this work in just the way it needs to be played: a straightforward attack, passionate urgency and, especially in the fiery sections, a fearlessness to got for it. One quibble I had was that a more restrained vibrato in the lyrical sections of the third movement rondo might have been more effective, but this hardly matters on the grander scheme of things with playing as enthralling and passionate as Leonard’s.

The third sonata of Op.12 concluded the concert. A contemporary of Beethoven described the set of Op.12 sonatas as “a heaping up of difficulties on difficulties till one loses all patience and enjoyment”. None of which was true in today’s performance: the technical challenges were unnoticed in the duo’s keen enjoyment of the third sonata. The grandeur of the opening flourish was well captured by both pianist and violinist. The sonata demands much from the pianist with rapid triplets and virtuosic filigree which Tinney demonstrated with characteristic crisp articulation and sparse pedalling. However, it was in the second movement Adagio that the duo showed themselves at their finest: the expressive phrasing and profound musicianship of Leonard coupled with Tinney’s limpid touch and intelligent vision produced a stillness that allowed the music to speak in purest simplicity. This was an utterly compelling partnership of equals.