Violin and piano, respectively, seem to be questioning each other at the start of Beethoven's last sonata for that combination of instruments. "Shall we start? Shall we?" each instrument seems to be saying to the other at the opening of the sonata in G Major (opus 96). In their recital Saturday night in Shriver Hall, violinist Elmar Oliveira and pianist Walter Ponce caught the hesitation-laden ambience of the opening of the sonata just about perfectly and then went on to give a magnificent reading of the rest of it.
In the first movement each instrument chased the other up and down the scale, building the questioning theme of the sonata's opening into something filled with momentum and drama. Oliveira, of course, is one of our very best violinists, but Ponce is clearly a superior pianist. He was able to tailor his trills to match his partner's pizzicati with both precision and expressiveness. And while he kept the lid of his instrument closed most of the way and restricted his dynamic scale somewhat below the level that this listener (and, I think, Beethoven) would have preferred, Ponce made one want to hear what he could achieve in a solo recital.
Both musicians filled the slow movement with soulfulness that did not eschew tensile strength; their fleet, delicious playing in the scherzo reminded one that the Vienna of Beethoven's day was a hotbed of waltzing; and the performance of the finale captured the composer's unbuttoned humor at its best -- each instrumentalist raced the other around the music's hairpin turns like a pair of otters and pointed up the music's jokes -- before letting the music skyrocket to its brilliant conclusion.
Much of the rest of the recital was quite wonderful. Oliveira gave a sweet and sizzling performance of Vitali's Chaconne, and both musicians made a performance of the program-concluding Castelnuovo-Tedesco's "Variations of Rossini's 'Figaro' " rival the final moments of an Independence Day fireworks display in pyrotechnical splendor.
If the recital had a major disappointment, neither artist can be faulted. Blame it on the Richard Strauss Sonata in E-flat, which occupied most of the concert's second half. That violinists continue to be attracted to this piece mystifies me. It's got a few nice moments, but for most of its duration it seems as if the young composer is warming up for "Heldenleben," substituting for the absence of an orchestra with thrashing up and down the fingerboard and the keyboard that must finally be accounted a waste of time.