Violinist Athena Hawksley-Walker and pianist Tom Fetherstonhaugh are setting new standards for Oxford University’s classical music scene with an ambitious project. They are performing Beethoven’s complete set of Violin sonatas over the course of a single year. With six down and four to go, I met with them to see how this exciting and challenging venture has been going so far.
They first bonded over their enthusiasm for this particular Beethoven work, which they now perform year later. ‘I learnt the Spring Sonata five years ago,’ Athena tells me, ‘it’s such a classic.’ They reflect on the satisfaction that has come from performing the Spring Sonata within the full series. ‘It was quite an attractive thing to have a project to follow through’, Tom says.
Everything is a message, everything is an emotion and a thought and a feeling
Tom and Athena comment on the impact that revisiting these pieces have had at a later stage in life. They both say they approach the pieces very differently to how they would have done five years ago. Reflecting on her musical experiences, Athena explains that ‘it can be easy to play two different sonatas and not really say anything – to play them in a really boring and classical way’. Tom adds ‘everything is a message, everything is an emotion and a thought and a feeling’.
‘In a way, there’s no real end to it. I want to do this all again in ten years.’
Considered a cornerstone of the piano and violin repertory, the Beethoven sonatas are an ambitious feat by any measure. Balancing such a task with full-time academic commitments is another challenge in itself. Rehearsing up to five times each week alongside a full complement of essays and lectures, it’s difficult to imagine Tom and Athena actually have any time to sleep. Yet, as time has passed, they admit that not only has it become easier to strike this balance, but the two disciplines have harmonised. Tom has found his analysis seminars have helped him to approach the Beethoven works with a more analytical mind-set, and that this approach has likewise informed his studies.
The experience itself is educational. ‘When you’re playing with other amazing musicians like Athena – you learn from them. You’re forced to always be engaged. Also, you really learn how to listen, which, of course, is the most important thing as a musician. I think especially as a soloist, listening isn’t the most prevalent thing. It’s not about you, it’s about the ensemble.’
Both are experienced solo and orchestral performers. Athena speaks of the unique pressures that chamber music performance places on the instrumentalist. For example the heightened exposure to the audience. ‘With orchestral playing it’s very easy to blend into the background.’ Communication in chamber performance is equally fundamental. ‘With chamber music you have to be so involved and so responsive. You bounce off each other, you respond to each other. If Tom plays something in a certain way that might cause me to think about playing in that way that I wouldn’t otherwise have learnt.’
We just want to share this music… We’re not doing it so much for our own development but to share it with everyone
Constantly on the ball like this, the relentless emotional output required of the musician becomes particularly demanding. ‘This repertoire asks so much of you emotionally’, says Tom. ‘Yesterday I came off stage not feeling physically tired, but emotionally drained.’
Tom describes Sonata Number 7, their favourite of the set: ‘It’s emotion after emotion sandwiched on top of each other. You have to work out the emotion of the musical ideas, and then how best to convey that to an audience.’
Tom and Athena have been overwhelmed by the amount of support they’ve received for this project. Not only from Professor Daniel Grimley and Merton College, without whom this project would not have been possible, but also their audiences. ‘A lot of them are just people who are in Oxford and have seen our poster’, Athena says. ‘We just want to share this music’, says Tom. ‘We’re not doing it so much for our own development but to share it with everyone.’
With another academic year ahead of them, I ask the duo what they have in the pipeline. ‘We’re thinking of doing a big Brahms sonata next year…if the director of studies lets us’, they laugh, nervously.
Their next performance will feature Sonatas No. 6 (A major) and 10 (G major) on Monday 14th April at 7.30pm. As with all their concerts, this performance will take place in the Holywell Music Room and admission is free.