Sunday, December 9, 2012

In which Beethoven's violin sonatas turn out to be OK after all

David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter play Beethoven's First Violin Sonata, in 1970.

by Ken

As I mentioned in Friday night's preview, I came away from a recent three-recital series presenting the complete Beethoven violin sonatas, well, impressed but unenchanted. The violinist and pianist seemed earnest and competent, and from their performances as well as their spoken comments there didn't seem any doubt about their appreciation for the music. And yet I came away thinking my longtime fondness for this music had maybe been outgrown.

Now the Beethoven violin sonatas aren't necessarily the most diverse portion of the composer's output. For one thing, they were written mostly in a fairly compact time frame. The first eight date from the period 1797-1802 -- the three sonatas of Op. 12 in 1797-98, the single sonatas of Opp. 23 and 24 in 1800-01, and the three sonatas of Op. 30 in 1802 (an important year for Beethoven; as we know from the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, he was in such despair that he came close to committing suicide). The great sonata we know as the Kreutzer, written on a much grander scale, followed soon after, leaving only by the fascinating and lovely G major Sonata, Op. 96, to come -- from 1812, making it the closest thing there is to a "late" Bethoven violin sonata.

But contrast came almost automatically for Beethoven. As we've discussed in such cases as the "fraternal twin" Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, expressing himself in one mode of musical discourse seemed to build up a need to express himself in a very different one.

I guess I was left thinking that the generally lighter emotional weight of the violin sonatas led to a lesser degree of individuality. Until something curious happened.


. . . that I'd had at the ready in the week or so before those three concerts. In case I felt like listening to any of the sonatas beforehand, I'd grabbed what seemed, on quick thinking, like my most compact CD holding: the two double-disc sets that contain the early '70s Beethoven violin sonata cycle of Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim (which even throw in the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio as a bonus!) And a couple of days after the last of those concerts, I slapped on the first disc, containing the three Op. 12 sonatas.

And there it was!

In performances that I didn't remember as being especially memorable, there was color, shading, pulse -- the sense of actual music as opposed to a mere pile-up of notes, notes, notes.

Eventually, as again I noted in the Friday preview, while I was focusing on that delicious moment in the slow movement of Op. 12, No. 2, I went back to the Zukerman-Barenboim recording and was something close to horrified. As I wrote, "The pianist seems to me locked into a sort of swoony mock-poetic attitude, while the violinist is just sort of slathering this gentle yet tough music with a cloyingly sugary vibrato."

So maybe no, the Zukerman-Barenboim Beethoven recordings weren't unremembered dream performances. But they'd helped me regain my way into a chunk of repertory that has long been close to my heart by taking for granted what musicians once generally did take for granted: that you find you way inside a piece of music, not by sticking it together according to some rules and formulas you find in some book or scholarly article but by finding how and why it moves from the inside.

Maybe someday I can find and put together exactly the right kinds of performances to illustrate the distinction. For this week, I just want to celebrate these sonatas a little. So what I thought we'd do is listen in quick succession to bits of each of the three-sonata groupings among these sonatas, which almost by definition were created for contrast.


Since we started with the slow movement of the middle sonata of Op. 12, I thought we'd start with the opening movements of the three sonatas of Op. 12. And I thought it important that we hear two noticeably different performances of each, to underscore the crucial role performers play in finding their version of that musical inner life.

BEETHOVEN: Violin-Piano Sonata No. 1 in D, Op. 12, No. 1:
i. Allegro con brio

For this broad, grandly declarative movement we have two wonderful performances, starting with the one from Fritz Kreisler's great pioneering cycle from 1935-36 (which by the way is downloadable, in quite listenable transfers from the 78s, for a mere dollar a sonata -- Nos. 1-4 here, Nos. 5-7 here, Nos. 8-10 here.)

Then we hear the opening of the cycle by longtime chamber-music partners Isaac Stern and Eugene Istomin first released in 1985 but clearly recorded over a certain amount of time. (It's noted, for example, that Op. 12, No. 1 is an analog, not digital recording. Maybe the mystery is finally cleared up in the most recent release, the bargain nine-CD set Isaac Stern plays Beethoven, which also includes the wonderful Stern-Rose-Istomin recordings of the piano trios and the Triple Concerto, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Stern's last recording the Violin Concerto, with Daniel Barenboim and the New York Philharmonic, plus the two Romances with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony -- a recording I don't recall!)

Fritz Kreisler, violin; Franz Rupp, piano. EMI, recorded in London, April 1935

Isaac Stern, violin; Eugene Istomin, piano. CBS-Sony, recorded in New York (?), 1970s (?)

BEETHOVEN: Violin-Piano Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 12, No. 2:
i. Allegro vivace

The Second Sonata begins very differently. This charming, devil-may-care Allegro vivace precedes the Andante, più tosto allegretto we focused on Friday night. Here we have our first "kinfolk" performance. The distinguished pianist Claude Frank, something of a Beethoven specialist (he was once a student of Artur Schnabel) is the father of our violinist, Pamela Frank.

Pamela Frank, violin; Claude Frank, piano. Music Masters, recorded in New York, December 1995

Christian Ferras, violin; Pierre Barbizet, piano. EMI, recorded in Paris, 1958

BEETHOVEN: Violin-Piano Sonata No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 12, No. 3:
i. Allegro con spirito

Although there's no minor-key opening movement among the Op. 12 sonatas, the three opening movements could hardly be more different. E-flat major isn't a sonically brilliant key for the violin, and it's a key Beethoven often used for expressing some kind of spiritual or romantic yearning.

As for the performers, Norbert Brainin was the first violinist of the legendary Amadeus Quartet, and was, like his three colleagues, the only person to occupy his chair in the quartet's 40-year history, up to its disbanding in 1987 following the death of violist Peter Schidlof. Henryk Szeryng was, of course, one of the great violinists of the 20th century.

Norbert Brainin, violin; Günter Ludwig, piano. Preiser, recorded in Frankfurt, February 1990

Henryk Szeryng, violin; Ingrid Haebler, piano. Philips, recorded in La Chaux-de-Fonds (Switzerland), January 1978

Now we move on to:


We have two full-fledged Adagios and, well, something else (see below).

BEETHOVEN: Violin-Piano Sonata No. 6 in A, Op. 30, No. 1:
ii. Adagio

Note that the violin gets to lead off this flight of song. Wolfgang Schneiderhan wasn't the most mellifluous of violinists, but as we hear, the man had soul. I've gone with  his mono recording rather than the later stereo one partly on the strength of Wilhelm Kempff's keyboard support, though he's kind of in the background here -- but the sound of the 1959 stereo version with Carl Seemann struck me as kind of echoey on rehearing. The Gotkovskys, by the way, are sister and brother.

Wolfgang Schneiderhan, violin; Wilhelm Kempff, piano. DG, recorded in Vienna, September 1952

Nell Gotkovsky, violin; Ivar Gotkovsky, piano. Pyramid, recorded in London, 1980-83

BEETHOVEN: Violin-Piano Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2:
ii. Adagio cantabile

"Cantabile" indeed -- the opening statement of the theme by the piano (then echoed by the violin, naturally) establishes that this is to be a soaringly singing Adagio; note that it follows an opening movement in Beethoven's much-loved storm-and-stress key of C minor. (We're going to be hearing this sonata in its entirety.) I thought it would be interesting to contrast the Adagio of Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, two outstanding musicians who are kind of outsiders in the world of Beethoven, with the more traditionally soulful one of Erica Morini and Rudolf Firkusny.

Gidon Kremer, violin; Martha Argerich, piano. DG, recorded in Montreux, December 1993

Erica Morini, violin; Rudolf Firkusny, piano. American Decca-MCA, recorded in New York, Oct. 19, 1961

BEETHOVEN: Violin-Piano Sonata No. 8 in G, Op. 30, No. 3:
ii. Tempo di menuetto, ma molto moderato

Here Beethoven manages to work in a minuet. Remember that it's the minuet or scherzo that is normally lost in the standard compression of the sonata from the symphony's and string quartet's four movements. Two of Beethoven's violin sonatas -- the so-called Spring Sonata, No. 5; and Op. 30, No. 2, which as noted we're going to hear in full -- in fact incorporate a brief Scherzo. And then there's this Tempo di menuetto, which functions as the slow movement of Op. 30, No. 3, and sounds more like a theme-and-variations movement than a minuet.

As for the performances, the Czech Petr Messiereur succeeded Jan Talich as first violinist of the Talich Quartet in 1970 and remained in that seat (recording extensively for the French Calliope label) until 1997, when he was succeeded by Jan Talich Jr.! I'm going to assume that Nathan Milstein, another of the 20th century's great violinists, needs no introduction. If he does, that gossamer sound he produces in the violin's bottom range when he takes over the theme should suffice.

Petr Messiereur, violin; Stanislav Bogunia, piano. Calliope, recorded in Metz (France), 1994

Nathan Milstein, violin; Artur Balsam, piano. Capitol-EMI, recorded in New York, Dec. 1957-Jan. 1958


And I thought we'd listen to Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) play it at three very different points in his life -- at ages 22, 54 (the set of Beethoven violin sonatas from which we heard the slow movement of Op. 12, No. 2 Friday night), and 70. In this last version, with his beloved sister Hephzibah having died in 1981 at 60, he is accompanied by his son Jeremy.

(In 2005 Jeremy Menuhin, then 43 gave an interview to Judith Woods of the Telegraph in which he said, among other things: "For a long time, I resented the public and, to this day, I can quite easily hate them. My father had a sort of love affair with the public, which excluded all of us, and it's hard, even now, to escape those instinctive feelings of animosity." He also said: "The emotional life of our family was grotesque. We barely saw our parents, and when we did, the atmosphere was dour and artificial. We crept round, and weren't allowed to go down to dinner if there were guests.")

BEETHOVEN: Violin-Piano Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2

As noted above, Beethoven cast the opening movement in his go-to storm-and-stress key of C minor (the key of the da-da-da-DUM opening movement of the Fifth Symphony), and then switched gears with that soaring Adagio cantabile. As noted, this is one of the violin sonatas in which the composer added a little Scherzo, and right jolly one it is, which then gives way to a stormy C minor finale.

i. Allegro con brio
ii. Adagio cantabile
iii. Scherzo
iv. Allegro

Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Hephzibah Menuhin, piano. EMI-Victor, recorded 1938 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Wilhelm Kempff, piano. DG, recorded in London, June 1970

Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Jeremy Menuhin, piano. EMI, recorded in London, July 7-8, 1986

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