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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonatas for Violin and Piano

  • Sonata for Violin #1 in D Major, Op. 12/1
  • Sonata for Violin #5 in F Major, Op. 24 "Spring"
  • Sonata for Violin #9 in A Major, Op. 46 "Kreutzer"
Mela Tenenbaum, violin
Richard Kapp, piano
Essay CD1083 75:29
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Finding your feet.

I suspect that when most people think of Beethoven sonatas, they think of the piano sonatas, certainly with good reason. For me, the violin and the cello sonatas share many of the glories of that cycle. It's actually difficult for me to dump on any Beethoven sonata, even the potboilers among the piano ones. He's always got something interesting going on. I know that scholars currently consider Beethoven Classical, rather than Romantic, but for me, he's definitely Romantic, especially when I consider Romanticism in general, including literature, painting, and architecture.

The key for me is a kind of asymmetry. The desideratum of Classicism is balance. Consider those examples of Georgian architecture where a door doesn't even open, built there simply because a functioning door lies across the axis of symmetry. Romanticism, on the other hand, pushes asymmetry, almost, and sometimes actually, losing your balance. Classicism allows for asymmetry, but as a kind of wit, as in the wonderful finale to Mozart's Symphony #39. Mozart's theme appears to stumble, but it stumbles like Fred Astaire – ie, not really. The balance over a slightly longer haul isn't really in doubt. Part of the fun of that movement involves finding your feet again. On the other hand, the Romantic landscape is, from the purely decorative point of view, a mess – Niagara Falls vs. Versailles. Art is made in the name of Nature, and Nature, superficially at least, is chaotic. It is the Romantic artist's job to penetrate that chaos to God's orderly subtext and reveal that to the rest of us.

To his mainly Classical audience, Beethoven's music – from a certain point on, at least – must have appeared incredibly grotesque. Consider even his early violin sonatas, Op. 12, a set of three. The strategy of the usual Classical sonata is mainly melody-plus-accompaniment. That is, the melody instrument gets most of the interesting material, which is (no big surprise) the main melody. Mozart raises the accompaniment to share some of that interest, so that the violin and the piano speak on relatively equal terms. Furthermore, he constructs his melodies in an unusual way. Mozart builds melodies as a ceramic artist builds a mosaic, out of little "tiles" of notes. He achieves new melodies or variations on old ones still from a basic set of tiles, recombining, extending, creating profound change from slight changes in those tiles. However, he still makes whole melodies: an integral melody remains his goal. In the opening movement of the D-major sonata, Beethoven, on the other hand, is the first major composer not to bother, to insist on the importance of fragments as fragments. Even at this early stage, where traces of the slightly older viewpoint linger (see the slow movement of the first sonata in particular), there is no dance or operatic melody. Instead, Beethoven calls attention to the shards, very much as a jazz player riffs on various gestures. It's almost like jump cuts in a film. There's no attempt to hide the seams in the musical line's fabric. There's also a great deal of passing these little musical fragments or motives back and forth between the violin and the piano, with different treatment dictated by the different natures of the two instruments. I can hear many saying, "Of course. What else would you expect?" But it's not a given. The insistence both on the equality of the partnership and on the fragment as such radically differs from the eighteenth-century, galante -derived norm, where an accompaniment supports a star and which aims at an integral song or dance.

The second movement, as I've said, stands closer to convention, the eighteenth-century arie variée. Yet even here, some of the variations would have struck their first listeners as decidedly odd. Accompanying figures – not accompanying anything, really – often become prominent in both instruments simultaneously. Again, Beethoven insists on the importance of material most composers would have regarded as "filler" and overlooked. He convinces you he's right. In the third and last movement, we hear the adumbration of a stylistic fingerprint of middle and late Beethoven: where the music suddenly stops and then starts again. It's not so radical a break as just before the "oboe cadenza" passage of the Fifth Symphony's first movement, but obviously it's an effect that Beethoven had in mind much earlier on.

The "Spring" sonata, the fifth, owes its popularity, I'm convinced, to its nickname, which someone other than Beethoven bestowed on it. I like the sonata, but I like the a-minor fourth even better, which has no nickname and which violinists tend to overlook. Despite Beethoven's "pastoral" key of F, I don't think of the fifth sonata as particularly spring-like. To me, it has as much to do with Beethovenian Sturm und Drang as with babbling brooks. You can hear the agitation percolating less than a minute into the opening movement, peeking out more openly about half a minute later, with affinities to the later "Pathétique" Piano Sonata #8. Here, true enough, the clouds never really unleash a storm. The sun keeps coming out by a paragraph's end. For me, the relationship between violin and piano is even more "balanced," more insistent on bona fide collaboration. Beethoven even trades off who gets to introduce material and who gets to answer. The movement, despite an easy-going first theme, has its share of surprises, notably some startling modulations into keys somewhere around the planet Pluto. The slow second movement strikes me as a bit old-fashioned, in the sense that actually stands firmly in the tradition of eighteenth-century aria. The third movement gives the violin sonata the formal distinction as Beethoven's first to use a scherzo. It's a movement full of goofy stumbles, miles away from the suavity of Mozart and Classicism. For one thing, it's often unclear where the first beat of the measure falls: the piano picks out one beat and the violin another. One gets the effect of the bar line itself jerking about. For another, it's over in about a minute. The proportions are All Wrong. What's it doing in this sonata at all? It's a little surrealistic teleport from the slow movement to the finale. God knows what the first listeners thought.

The "Kreutzer," the most monumental of the violin sonatas, caught listeners' imaginations from the first. Great writers used it in stories. It opened up the generic possibilities of the violin sonata like no other. A Major virtuoso not learning it would surprise me. Alone among the violin sonatas, it carries the weight of the more epic Beethoven piano sonatas. The composer himself remarked on its innovation: a "sonata written in a concertante manner, almost like a concerto." Well, like a Beethoven piano concerto, at any rate. The first movement growls and rages like a wild animal. This is probably the first all-out Big Boppin' Romantic violin sonata. And yet, am I alone in hearing affinities to the Baroque, the introduction especially, with its double- and triple-stopping? I guess one could draw an equally strong analogy to the classical symphony's slow introduction before a first-movement allegro. The introduction starts and stops and, after what seems a very long time, puts us down not in what seems like the beginning of something, but in the middle. Again, Beethoven emphasizes fragments, rather than lines. Furthermore, the movement itself is fragmentary. By now, his habit of shutting down and starting up again hangs out in the open. He has already composed the "Tempest" piano sonata, with the same rhetoric of ambiguity and hesitancy. It's as if we're reading a book with missing pages. The second movement, a large variation structure (as long as some violin sonatas, as a matter of fact), starts off in a blameless eighteenth-century way, with a leaning on decoration of a simple melody. As it proceeds, you notice some odd things: the variation bit is in two asymmetrical parts, eight plus nineteen measures, and the "repeats" aren't strict repeats, but fully written out – in a sense, variations on the variation. Furthermore, one or another instrument may go its own way, catch itself, and then drop back into the variation mold with its partner. The coda has some fancy – and very affecting – harmonic progressions, but by this time (from the introduction by the solo piano) we find ourselves in the middle of a mini-fantasy on the theme, rather than a strict variation.

Beethoven intended the third movement for another sonata, but the deadline for the Kreutzer was pressing (apparently he improvised some of the piano part at the première), so he appropriated this finale. It turns out the movement fits beautifully, a fitting counterpart to the energy of the first movement, only here not at all angry. Its rhythm gets inside the body, and Beethoven keeps it up for so long, you wonder how he will manage actually ending the piece. He does something really brilliant, almost a rhythmic pivot to an idea of great calm. Remarkably, the idea gets very little time in the movement, but it makes all the difference. It's not a complete stop, as we have seen elsewhere, but a "flirtation" with stopping, and he pivots again back to the manic without breaking a sweat. It seems simple and natural, until you ask yourself whether you could have thought of it. Toward the end, he teases the listener with several of these pivots close together, before ending in a whirl.

A lot of violinists, including big names, have recorded these sonatas. You certainly have your pick. For the complete sonatas, in general I happen to like Kremer and Argerich. They bring out the edginess of Beethoven's music. However, I tend to prefer performances not part of an integral set, for the simple reason that most people understand some things more than other things. My favorite Kreutzer is the old Heifetz-Moiseiwitsch, an unashamedly late-Romantic reading which blazes. But Beethoven's music rewards many different approaches. I've long admired Mela Tenenbaum's playing – her intellect as well as her fire. Even in pieces I think I know, she shows me something new. Indeed, I consider her and Kapp currently the best performers of the first sonata. Kremer and Argerich are fine, but they really want you to get that this music is Important. Consequently, everything seems subjected to a hard sell. In contrast, Tenenbaum and Kapp trust the music more. They make you realize how remarkable the music is without nudging you in the ribs. Their collaboration resembles an intelligent conversation more than a series of star turns. On the other hand, the "Spring" sonata can stand a hard sell. At least, I need a hard sell to keep me really interested in the music. Tenenbaum and Kapp seem too tentative here.

As for the Kreutzer, the first movement tends to take care of itself (assuming we listen to first-rate players), and Tenenbaum and Kapp are certainly that. They haven't the Heifetz-Moiseiwitsch passion, but neither does anybody else. However, I love their second movement. Kapp begins his solo with slight hesitations in the phrase – I've not heard anyone else do this – which immediately perked me up. It turns out that he foreshadows Tenenbaum's way with the theme. The hesitations are far more natural to the violin than to the piano, but Kapp has given you something insightful and new, without becoming outlandish. In general, Tenenbaum and Kapp tend to morph the music to a formal no-man's land somewhere between variation and almost-Chopin Romantic fantasia. They take the opportunities Beethoven gives them to blur structural lines. Their last movement is just pure joy. They play with each other in more than one sense, incredibly alert to what the other is doing. Whether really so or not, they seem spontaneous, as if what one has just done inspires the other on the spot – especially true as the movement continues. This is what players do when they have something of their own to say that illuminates a composer. We complain all the time about "assembly-line" interpretations. This is the opposite.

Copyright © 2005, Steve Schwartz