Listening to Beethoven #164 – Sonata for piano and violin no.4 in A minor Op.23

joseph-anton-koch-mountain-scene

Mountain Scene (1796) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.4 for piano and violin in A minor Op.23 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Presto
2. Andante scherzoso, più allegretto
3. Allegro molto

Dedication Count Moritz von Fries
Duration 20′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

A relatively quick return for Beethoven to the duo sonata, with a pair of works for piano and violin. He worked first on Op.23 and then immediately began Op.24, the Spring sonata, its much more famous sibling. The two works were published together, like the Op.12 trio of sonatas, but due to an error in the engraving they were assigned separate opus numbers. Both pieces were written for Count Moritz von Fries, a banker who was an important patron to Beethoven around this time.

Many see the separate publication of the two works as an appropriate move, for commentators regard the Op.23 sonata as the chalk to the Spring sonata’s cheese. Daniel Heartz gives Op.23 a surprisingly wide berth, and his detailed examination of early Beethoven only finds one short paragraph for the work. ‘It seems dour and astringently contrapuntal compared to the lushly endowed siren before us in Op.24’, he writes. ‘In competition with alluring beauties, overt sagacity has rarely won the day, nor does it do so here’. He does however point out that ‘it was the composer’s habit to work simultaneously on works of disparate character’.

William Drabkin is more complimentary, marking the influence of Mozart throughout. Writing in The Beethoven Companion, Nigel Fortune notes the rarity of A minor in Beethoven’s output, before observing that the sonata ‘is unique, too, in being dominated by so much tense and bare linear movement’.

The outer movements are prime examples of this, he says, while the ‘slow’ movement includes – exceptionally – ‘a fugato on a theme that contrasts vividly with the slurred and halting motion of the opening idea’.

Thoughts

This unusual piece has the feeling of a work Beethoven had to get out of his system. The key of A minor was one he very seldom used – nor, incidentally, did Haydn – and in fact this violin sonata is his only large-scale work to use the key. There is a marked tension between A minor and A major throughout, the sort of duel that would become a feature of the mature works of Schubert, who often used ‘A’ as a centre.

The bare opening of the first movement finds both instruments in unison, and though it looks like it should be playful on the page it proves rather acerbic. The movement proceeds with a stern dialogue, unwieldly but still effective.

Signs of warmth appear in the slow movement, where Beethoven switches to the major key. Rhythmically the two instruments are very much in step, with a stop-start feel to the tune, and as Beethoven constructs variations on it the music becomes a little more flowing. The unusual fugue passage would have been a big surprise to the audience of the time, and still feels a little odd here.

The third movement bursts out of the blocks in the same spirit of the first, and again feels more like a duel than a collaboration – but the simplicity of the second theme brings a tender contrast, a reminder of the warmth that can still be found in spite of Beethoven’s lean and slightly mean approach in this piece.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

Once again the fresh approach of Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel is invigorating, and the relative lack of vibrato from Seiler’s violin suits the character of the music without making it too dark. Yehudi Menuhin has a much fuller sound by contrast, but this brings a welcome warmth to the slow movement in particular, as does the responsive playing of Wilhelm Kempff. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka have a similar profile, while the newest version – from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen – is quite a powerhouse, sweeping forward impressively.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1801 Vanhal – Clarinet Sonata in C major

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.5 in F major Op.24 ‘Spring’

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