The ten sonatas for violin and piano constitute a fascinating entity among Ludwig van Beethoven’s output. Written, for the most part, in the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the sonatas reflect both the composer’s stylistic development and the rapid evolution of the keyboard.
While some of the earliest sonatas still fit into the 18th century mold of a keyboard sonata embellished with a violin part, Beethoven was keen on establishing a more equal partnership between the two instrumental parts right from the start.
Beethoven himself was not only a keyboard virtuoso but also a compelling violinist. Thus, his relationship with both instruments was more than solid. As with practically every instrumental form he dealt with, Beethoven was destined to redefine the violin sonata as well. Apart from two later works, most of Beethoven’s œuvre for violin and piano was written within a five-year period.
Given the intense stylistic development contained within these ten sonatas, the chance to hear them played as a cycle is always more than fascinating. On Saturday evening at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim, companions-in-arms for five decades, or so, set forth on their three-concert journey throughout the cycle. Closing next Sunday, the concert series presents the sonatas in chronological order.
In the first concert, four sonatas were played, including the three sonatas of opus 12 and sole sonata comprising the opus 23.
All three sonatas from Beetvoven’s first published take on the medium were completed in 1798 and dedicated to Antonio Salieri. In genuinely Beethovenian manner, the Sonata in D Major provides a formidably in-your-face opening for the collection.
Although there are still many links to the sonatas of Haydn and Mozart in the First Sonata, the opening Allegro con brio sends the two solo instruments headlong on their separate, albeit idiomatic, paths.
Following the opening storm, a soothingly ingenious set of variations ensues in the second movement. Contained in these pages, there is a wealth of invention, in gracious flowing hue of an andante con moto. As a conclusion, an upbeat rondo is heard.
While the second and third movements were performed with spirited dedication by Zukerman and Barenboim, there were some problems with the opening movement. The two instruments were less than ideally balanced, with the piano overriding the violin here and there.
However, it should be noted, that the music was originally written for a keyboard instrument far removed from the pianos of our time. Thus, a completely satisfactory reading of the score is probably best achieved with period instruments.
In addition, on a personal note, it took some time to get accustomed with Zukerman’s wide vibrato. While well-suited to the atmospheric realm of the second movement, it tended to blur the contrapuntal textures of the opening movement even further.
Interestingly, after the First Sonata, all the aforementioned problems evaporated, and the two other opus 12 sonatas were pure joy. While both pieces adopt the traditional piano-violin scheme more or less, the scores are alight with invention.
The Sonata in A Major opens with a swift scherzo-like allegro vivace, providing both instruments their moments to shine in both ends of their registers.
The second movement, andante, più tosto allegretto is a wondrous study in sublime melancholy. Taking hold of the listener, there is a subtle drama unfolding, to a gripping effect. Form here, the music gently flows to the closing allegro piacevole, providing a perfect ending.
Performed with admirable sensitivity and delicacy by Zukerman and Barenboim, the Second Sonata was a luminous experience.
Concluding opus 12, Sonata in E flat Major is a delightful summa of the compositional devises employed in the first two sonatas. Be it the energetic outer movements or the impressive drama of the adagio con molta espressione (sic), Beethoven’s instrumental narrative flourishes in full.
Zukerman and Barenboim navigated through the Third Sonata with flying colours. Ever in admirable balance, Beethoven’s textural and harmonic invention blossomed in astonishing sonic garb.
There is a similar quantum leap from opus 12 to opus 23 as there is from the First Symphony (1799-1800) to the Second (1801-02).
The Sonata in A minor was written in 1801. Compared to the first volume of sonatas, Beethoven employs far more ambitious layout for his new sonata, both in terms of texture and expression. The music launches straight into presto in the opening movement, with the violin and the piano chasing each other in a maze of serpentine byways.
As suggested by the score, Zuckerman and Barenboim tackled the opening movement with fabulous mischievousness, to a captivating effect. Resulting in an aptly balanced musical arc, the sonata form was unraveled with marvellous teamwork.
The opening movement is followed by a jest, in the guise of andante scherzoso, più allegretto. For his middle movement, Beethoven adopts a lighter tone, with the violin and the piano engaged in playful dialogue. With Zukerman and Barenboim performing this music, one could sense a level of communication only decades of shared experience can bring forth.
Marked allegro molto, the finale rondo is a tumultuous affair. Here, the violin and the piano head on their separate ways, giving rise to fabulous textures. As equals, the two instruments venture into a realm of new possibilities, yielding way beyond the 18th century paradigm.
Performed with spirited musicality by Zuckerman and Barenboim, the finale bought the evening to an inspiring close. An intriguing start for the complete cycle.
Pinchas Zukerman, violin
Daniel Barenboim, piano
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Major, Op.12, No. 1 (1798)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, Op.12, No. 2 (1797-98)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata for Violin and Piano in E flat Major, Op.12, No. 3 (1798)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor, Op. 23 (1801)
Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin
Saturday 29 February, 8 pm
© Jari Kallio
Photos © Monika Rittershaus