• New Survey of Beethoven's Violin Sonatas



    Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano
    Jerilyn Jorgensen, violin. Cullan Bryant, piano.
    Albany Records TROY 1825-28
    Disc One Total Time:  58:52
    Disc Two Total Time: 46:11

    Disc Three Total Time: 68:47

    Disc Four Total Time: 67:09

    Recording:   (*)***/****
    Performance: (*)***/****



    The violin sonatas of Beethoven tend to be among the lesser known chamber pieces of the composers, with the quartets and piano sonatas often overshadowing these equally important works.  Among them, the ninth (“Kreutzer”) is perhaps the more familiar of the batch of ten sonatas.  That makes the present release an interesting opportunity for those less familiar with these works to explore them but also provides a unique take with its focus on using period instruments.  The recording uses historic pianos found in the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA.  The instruments themselves were selected based on their connection to the period.  Five different instruments are employed for the recording including one that was part of the Esterhazy estate and which may have been one of the last piano’s whose sound Beethoven heard before his deafness took hold.  Two of these are from around 1830.  Interestingly, sometimes one can hear echoes of the harpsichord, especially in the lower registers, or even a lute-like sound quality at times.  Ms. Jorgensen is playing an Andrea Carolus Violin, from Vienna, 1797.  The instrument has a slightly different construction, an earlier style neck set and a flatter arching to lend it a more powerful sound than other instruments of the time.  In addition, Jorgensen has chosen a variety of historical bows.  All of these are detailed in the extensive notes including informative essays for the pianos (by E. Michael Frederick) and the violin and bows (by Stefan Hersh).  The sonatas are organized chronologically across the four discs.  Most of the sonatas adhere to the traditional three-movement structure and also the common movement organization (though here too there are some surprises).  But, unlike those of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven begins to move the violin away from a duo role to one of prominence, something perhaps lost on modern ears.


    This can be heard already in the Opus 12 set of 1797, dedicated to Antonio Salieri.  Already these “Sonatas for pianoforte and violin” make more demands upon the soloist who cannot be a passing amateur.  The first sonata, in D Major, is notable for its theme and variations central movement (which features some rather odd bursts from the piano), moving away from the ternary slow movement.  From the very opening of the movement the violin takes on its more expressive role while the piano provides the forward motion and energy.  The second sonata is also a bit unusual in that thematically it appears to be a bit more obtuse in the opening movement where we get Beethoven exploring smaller parcels of musical material.  The slow movement more than makes up for this with a nice melancholy melody in the parallel minor.  A humorous rondo wraps this up.  The final sonata moves us away from the lighter wit of the central work to one of more heroic grandeur.  Here the piano seems to take on a more prominent role with the violin feeling more like an obbligato partner.  It features one of Beethoven’s very gorgeous adagios and an equally fun rondo that returns to the exploration of segments of a theme.  The performances here are all fine, though sometimes the rapid passage sections at cadences is a bit of a blur (it feels more like an instrument rather than a technique issue).  The crispness of Bryant’s playing is well-aided by these instruments which can be sometimes a bit dampened and less bright than a modern piano.  That makes these a bit warm as one’s ear grows accustomed to the sound.


    For Beethoven, three years can be an eternity in development and the two sonatas from 1800 (Op. 23 and 24) are from a very creative period.  Both are dedicated to Moritz Johann Christian Graf vin Fries and the fifth, with its later appellation “Spring”, has become the more popular of the violin sonatas.  That said, we can see Beethoven continuing to play with expectations, often the purview of minor key works (this one is in “a minor”).  From the opening we are in an unusual 6/8-meter choice and the harmonic shift to e-minor instead of E-major is also quite innovative for a second key arrival point.  The sonata-allegro form also uses repeats of both halves of the work—in some respects a throwback to the simpler binary forms.  Here both the exposition and the entire development (which has its own theme!) and recapitulation are repeated.  A telling dying away at the end of the movement comes as an equally unusual dramatic touch.  For contrast, we get a light-hearted scherzoso with interplay between the violin and piano (a nice contrapuntal section) and a later nice lyrical contrasting theme.  The third movement returns us to the depths of the more somber opening key.  Troubled energy moves things forward but all ends in despair as both instruments descend into their own depths.  The more familiar fifth sonata in F Major is interesting for its shift to a four-movement form (though the penultimate scherzo breezes by in a minute).  Things are a bit more carefree here with less conflict.  The second movement features a truly gorgeous lyrical quality often the focus of the piano sonatas.  After the shock of the quick-paced minuetto/scherzo (a reminder at the delicious glee and wit of such musical jokes), we head into a solid rondo, one of the more lyrical of the sonatas.  One can begin to sense in this work a new shift in Beethoven’s style further away from the Classicism of the era into something more personal.  In the fourth sonata, it is quite a mark to hear the emotional shifts handled so beautifully here.  The central movement really is a quite excellent performance with plenty of musical wit captured by both performers.  It is like the one ray of sunshine only to be dispelled in the final movement.  The c. 1795 keyboard used for the recording is perfectly matched to the nuances needed.  There is hefty competition here for the “Spring” sonata, but it works well within this survey of the complete works even if listeners may have a personal interpretation.  A fine case though is made for their approach here all the same.


    Disc three brings us a parallel set of three sonatas from the early part of 1802, Op. 30, dedicated to Tsar Alexander of Russia.  Each exhibits a different side of Beethoven, from a more Classical approach in the first, to a more intense second, and a delightfully upbeat third.  The sixth sonata, in A Major, is perhaps the least familiar of these works.  It bears a slight connection to the later “Kreutzer” sonata with an idea for the final movement sketched out, but left to that later work.  Instead the movement is a fine set of theme and variations.  There is also a further elevation of the violin line with both instruments now sharing and interacting with thematic material.  One can here this early on in the opening movement where the stage is set.  The ternary central slow movement is a moment of simple beauty.  In some respects, it may be that this sonata is a reflective look back on where Beethoven had been.  The seventh sonata is the only other one in a minor key, a very stormy c-minor.  Here Beethoven shifts to a four-movement structure adding a further weight to the work.  To further highlight its somewhat experimental nature, Beethoven eschews repeating the exposition and balances this with a more extensive coda.  There is a little martial idea as well in this movement in the heroic key of Eb Major.  The second movement provides a relaxed interlude with a dance-like feel.  Intriguing structural exploration occurs here as well with a varied return to the opening material and a dramatic coda.  Wit and quirkiness abound in the fascinating scherzo which has some canonical writing in the trio section, further finding ways to balance the equality of both instrument’s contribution.  From a murky rumble, the finale moves us into a more intense, emotional exploration that never abandons its tonic minor focus even at the end.  The eighth sonata returns us to a happier time with its G- major mode further highlighting the joy and humor of the work.  The opening helps set this laid back and gentle tone.  The central minuet is filled with plenty of humorous sforzandi.  The finale rondo seems rather innocent, but Beethoven plays some wonderful little jokes as it moves especially into the coda where a rather unusual theme return in a more remote key provides a moment of surprise.  Often called “the charmer” of the set of sonatas, this is indeed makes for a fitting conclusion to this set of three.  In fact, disc three brings us a chance to then also hear the way both performers here must shift emotionally to handle the twists and turns of the dramatic undercurrent of the music.  There can be some moments of hesitation in the thornier parts of the musical discourse, but here both musicians acquit themselves quite well.  It is then further interesting that each of these recordings were recorded in different years.  That is not as noticeable though in the overall sound.  There is s fine sense of comfortability here that comes with both musicians having a strong sense of the music and its performance approaches.  That is the strength of this quarter of the overall set—at least it becomes most apparent in the requirements of these three sonatas.


    The final two sonatas bring us to the end of this fine survey beginning with perhaps Beethoven’s most famous violin sonata, the “Kreutzer”, Op. 47.  Though there is no indication that he ever performed it, the work was written for Rodolphe Kreutzer in 1803.  The subtitle of the A Major sonata provides a further window into Beethoven’s thoughts about the type of piece this is as it is both a blend of concertante and concerto.  At 40 minutes playing time, it is the longest of the sonatas, and further illustrates its weightier implications.  The first movement features a variety of advanced technique using double and triple stops.  It also features a slow introduction (borrowing from a similar approach more common in symphonies and quartets).  The piano enters in a rather unusual key area and pushes the harmony into even stranger directions before finally landing in a-minor.  The work’s somewhat “fantasia” opening gives way to an intense presto.  Overall, the movement is among the most virtuosic and demanding of the sonatas.  At the center is the longest movement of any of the sonatas.  Here is a theme and variations that Beethoven has been slowly preparing for with its 54-bar theme subjected to four variations.  Virtuoso technique for both violin and piano is required here too and the range of the violin is further expanded as the movement progresses.  The exciting energy returns to cap an exhilarating tarantella.  The final sonata, Op. 96 in G Major (1812) was dedicated to Beethoven’s patron and student, Archduke Rudolph.  The composer worked as well with the violinist Pierre Rode (1774-1830)—a student of Viotti—whose own sensibility likely impacted some of the compositional choices for the work.  The opening movement has that more serene wistfulness melding folkish material and melodic inventiveness that feels a bit nostalgic.  It is the latter which is part of the gorgeous slow movement. As it dies away, we move immediately into a scherzo with nods towards the landler.  Folkish qualities also inhabit the theme and variation finale, where we find the composer exploring the deconstruction of themes into compact motives.


    The album was recorded across several years at the Ashburnham Community Church in Massachusetts.  There is a bit more reverb and slight echo here in the open sound of the acoustic space (this seems to be more an issue in the recordings made at the beginning of the project in 2016, by the 2018 recordings this is less noticeable).  Perhaps this makes for a bit of an adjustment for the occasional rapid decay that happens with the earlier pianos.  It should be noted though that one becomes accustomed to this spatial element early on and it is not a distraction by any means as the set progresses.


    Some may recognize Ms. Jorgensen from her recordings of Arthur Foote and Charles Martin Loeffler when she was a member of the Da Vinci Quartet.  Over the last couple of decades, she, along with Bryant, have performed widely exploring historic instruments and practice and are featured performers for the 2021 conference of the Historical Keyboard Society of North America.  The performances here are all solid and allow a more historical perspective to rehear these important works.  The expressiveness of Jorgensen’s playing is quite engaging.  Bryant’s pianistic technique is also well-matched to explore these instruments with a sense of familiarity that makes these natural.  It can take a bit of getting used to with these period keyboards, but it is quite striking how they are so different in often quite slight ways.  They bring their own sense of character to the music itself.  One gets a sense that the careful choices here help equally bring out aspects of the music that may be lost in a more contemporary performance.  Beethoven fans will likely find much to fascinate them as they compare their own favorite interpreters with these performances.  As such, this release will be an interesting addition to Beethoven audiophiles who are perhaps looking for a fresh approach to this music.

  • The Dresden Staatskapelle Light Music under Bohm


    Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, vol. 43: Karl Bohm
    Overtures & Entertaining Concert Pieces
    Dresden Staatskapelle/Karl Bohm
    Profil 18035
    Disc One: Total Time: 76:12
    Disc Two: Total Time: 75:43
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    The great Austrian conductor Karl Bohm (1894-1981) rose to prominence as an important interpreter of Mozart, Wagner, and Richard Strauss, as well as a supporter of modern German music.  His style, steeped in the German romantic tradition, would be captured in a long legacy on record.  His recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle from live performances in 1967 is a cornerstone of his recorded legacy and is among the finest available.  With the Berlin Philharmonic he recorded all the Mozart symphonies.  In 1971, he would commit to disc a Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic that is still highly regarded today.  Bohm was among the conductors pegged early on as a possible “star” to sell early recordings of classical music.  Thus, his early discography features a great variety of music from early shellac LPS for Electrola which are the focus here.

    In this new set exploring the great history of the Dresden Staatskapelle orchestra we get a chance to hear the ensemble from its very earliest recordings.  The ensemble has a long history which goes back to 1548!  It was one of Richard Strauss’s favorite orchestras and was the orchestra where Richard Wagner served as Kapellmeister.  Also notable were its first recordings ever of Bruckner (the 4th and 5th symphonies).  Christian Thielemann is its current director.

    This new set in the Dresden’s early recordings were essentially “live” performances requiring a sort of attention to detail and focus that left no room for mistakes, retakes, or editing later.  The result is that there is an extra sense of energy and excitement underlying the performances.  Many longer pieces had to be split across two sides to accommodate the play time that was available on these 30 cm discs.  That makes longer works that real challenge for early recordings, but in this case, many works fit on a single side which adds to an even more fascinating listen to this collection of overtures and lighter pieces.  Sometimes it is hard to believe how engineers managed to find the right balance for these single microphone performances cut directly to cylinders.  The pieces featured here were recorded between 1935-40.  Disc one focuses mostly on music from Germany and Austria while the second disc opens up to music from throughout Europe.

    The repertoire here features a number of classics that continue to be perennial favorites as well as some interesting, but somewhat forgotten, little gems.  To get a sense of how much fun runs through these performances one can begin with the exciting performance of the Die Fledermaus “Overture” by Johann Strauss, Jr. which opens disc one.  Bohm’s approach really has this music sparkling along with a sense of energy and shape that tends to get overlooked.  The rich orchestral quality of the Dresden orchestra also comes through.  The dramatic “Interlude Music” from the composer’s operetta A Thousand and One Nights is a wonderful contrast. The interior of the program features the more popular Mozart overtures to The Abduction from the Seraglio (minus its concert ending) and The Marriage of Figaro.  More serious music of early German Romanticism then follows.  First is a riveting performance of the third “Leonore Overture” from Beethoven’s Fidelio (the trumpet fanfare solo is quite fascinating with its seeming recess in the sound picture) and the Egmont Overture, Op. 84.  The former’s sound suffers slightly from the second disc source which improves as it continues.  Weber is represented with overtures from Der Freischutz and Oberon, respectively.  Smetana’s Bartered Bride “Overture” closes off the CD.  But not before we are treated to the two earliest recordings in the set.  They represent the very first pieces Bohm recorded with the Dresden orchestra.  Albert Lortzing (1801-1851) was a composer and singer who expanded upon the German singspiel by combining elements of French comic opera.  His music was in vogue in Berlin in the 19th Century with the opera Undine (1845) one of his more popular works.  Its “Ballet Music” and a “Clog Dance” from the 1837 Zar und Zimmermann provide a nice transition historically from the Weber and into the nationalist style of Smetana.  The performances are all quite compelling on this release.  Strings sound quite good.  As is more the result of the mike placement than anything, wind passages in big moments can get lost, but they do manage to cut through when needed and it is obvious these players were brilliant technically in order to match the tempi in some of the faster segments.  Here we have the inherited tradition of how this music sounded as handed down to the present generation.

    Disc two features an additional collection of overtures and preludes but also gives us Mozar’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 from 1938.  (Originally issued on a 2-disc set with one movement to a side!  There is some occasional surface noise here from time to time).  Here too the musical choices are a blend of familiar classics and interesting rarer pieces.  Humperdinck’s magical overture from Hansel und Gretel receives a gorgeous performance.  This and Reznicek’s Donna Diana overture bookend three Italian opera excerpts by Leoncavallo (I Pagliacci’s “Intermezzo”). Mascagni (the “Intermezzo sinfonico”—in a most beautifully delicate reading— and the “Easter Hymn” from Cavelleria Rusticana sung in Germanwhich includes the State Opera chorus and an organ as well) and the “Prelude” from Verdi’s Aida.  Fun short pieces follow including Berlioz’s “Rakoczy March”, an arrangement of Schubert’s “Marche Millitaire, D. 733”, and Strauss’s Emperor Waltz.  An 8-minute excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 has its own tantalizing moments of what a complete performance of the work might have sounded like.  The sole contemporary work is Theodor Berger’s (1905-1992) Rondino giocoso, Op. 4 (1933).  Berger’s music is all but forgotten today, but no less than Wilhelm Furtwangler was a proponent and advocate for it.  The recording here was made by Columbia.Two Hungarian Dances (nos 5 and 6) by Brahms bring this collection to a close.

    Surface noise has been optimized here with an often crystal clear quality.  Admittedly, it really feels as though one were hearing these on an LP player at times rather than a CD.  (Another side realization is the overall performance attacks and style of playing that often can be heard in the studio recordings in Hollywood in this same period.)  Some sources are in excellent condition while others at times show some wear.

    One of the historical side notes related to recording light classical repertoire that would sell well has its roots in the growing anti-semitism of the time.  In the case of the Electrola company, many of their releases featured the Berlin Staatskapelle which was conducted by Leo Blech who was Jewish.  He was one of the few artists allowed to leave Riga where he had been in exile, under orders by no less than Hermann Goring.  He would end up in Stockholm where he would conduct the opera there.  It is an important side note as this political issue was tied to the Electrola’s commercial need to essentially replace all of the recordings he made with new ones.   An additional side note is also necessary related to Bohm’s somewhat controversial personal life.  Bohm was a supporter of Hitler and the Nazi party, though some are yet unsure whether this was an extent of his own convictions or done to protect his family and progress his career.  This was especially present during his years in Dresden (1934-43), and even opened doors to his being the conductor of the Dresden Opera when Fritz Busch was dismissed.  After World War II, he was required to undergo two years of “denazification” before being allowed to return to conducting and public performing.  And so, we have here the beginnings of the recorded legacy by a decidedly somewhat controversial conductor of the 20th Century, but one whose musical ability is not denied.

    All of this historical reality is not intended to cast a shadow across what exists though in this release.  Profil has brought listeners an opportunity for an historical glance at the early days of a great conductor and one of the stellar orchestras of the early 20th Century.  The accompanying booklet has good information on the orchestra and recordings, less on the music itself though.  It is packages in a container that could hold 4 discs.  The musical legacy here is compelling with exciting performances of light classical works that in and of themselves reveal the taste and commercial viability of art music at the time.  Because many of these works remain popular, it gives even the most casual of classical music listeners an opportunity to explore historical recordings like these and potentially open up a door to many of the other releases in this extensive series.