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
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.