Serpentine landscape with shepherd and cattle at a spring (1832-4) by Joseph Anton Koch
Sonata no.5 for piano and violin in F major Op.24 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)
2. Adagio molto espressivo
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto
4. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
Dedication Count Moritz von Fries
by Ben Hogwood
Background and Critical Reception
The so-called Spring sonata for violin and piano appears to have acquired its nickname quickly after composition. It is easy to hear why from the very start of the piece, the violin brimming with ideas and a fertile invention that it can barely contain, while the piano burbles its approval.
Simon Nicholls, writing booklet notes to accompany a fine recording from violinist Paul Barritt and pianist James Lisney, notes that the Spring was a partner for the recently-heard Sonata in A minor Op.23, and that its warm F major would ‘highlight the delicious relaxation of tension’ from the ‘winter’ of the earlier piece.
Commentators agree that the work is probably the best known of all Classical violin sonatas, though they note a subtle but telling shift towards the future. It is the first of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin to adopt the four-movement framework, and it gives a noticeably more dominant part to the violin, taking the lead when a lot of the main tunes are heard for the first time.
Beethoven’s contemporary Carl Czerny described the work as ‘holy peace’, while Denis Matthews notes an identical relation between the tonality (F major) of this work and the much later Pastoral symphony. The slow movements, too, share the same key (B flat major), described by Nicholls as a ‘rapt nocturne’. Beethoven then introduces ‘possibly the briefest of scherzi’ before ‘an unfailing flow of melodic invention in the finale’.
All these elements have combined to make the sonata one of the most performed in concert halls today, audiences enjoying its frequent and often dazzling rays of sunshine.
Beethoven’s invention feels as fresh as a daisy when the Spring sonata begins. The violin sings like a bird with both the tunes given to it in the first movement, the first descending from high up, the second ready to take to the air from its perch. The open air calls loudly to the listener, and for the first time in these sonatas there is that shift towards the violin taking the lead, the piano depending on its every move.
The slow movement is indeed rather special, and in a good performance radiates pure musical enjoyment, the two protagonists enjoying spending time together. Soft piano arpeggios complement a hushed melody from the violin, after which Beethoven enjoys moving to keys farther afield. A few shadows reveal themselves in the process but are dissipated by the return to the first theme.
You will blink and miss the scherzo if you are not careful, which would be a shame as it is rather beautifully woven together, with a spring in its step if you pardon the pun! Meanwhile the finale has a lovely theme too, the violin still in songful mood and the rippling piano providing a flowing accompaniment. Some spiky interaction between the two instruments in the develop leads to a return of the theme with pizzicato violin, almost absentmindedly strumming before normal service is resumed. Beethoven can’t resist a few more unusual modulations to far-flung keys before returning to the familiarity of these particularly green pastures.
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)
Arthur Grumiaux (violin), Clara Haskil (piano) (Philips)
Both Josef Suk and Arthur Grumiaux are notable for the full tone of their interpretations, which suits the Spring sonata rather nicely – as does the florid input of their pianists, Josef Hala and Clara Haskil respectively. Midori Seiler and Jos Van Immerseel give a lovely account of the piece, enjoying the open textures but with the mottled sound of the fortepiano an attractive complement to Seiler’s bright tone. Also of great note in a crowded field is an excellent new version from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen, bubbling over with enthusiasm.
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 John Marsh – Symphony no.30 in E minor
Next up Serenade in D major Op.25