Grindelwald Glacier in the Alps (1823) by Joseph Anton Koch
Sonata no.7 for piano and violin in C minor Op.30/2 (1802, Beethoven aged 31)
1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio cantabile
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. Finale: Allegro; Presto
Dedication Tsar Alexander I
by Ben Hogwood
Background and Critical Reception
Once again, a group of three instrumental pieces by Beethoven is found to contain a tempestuous piece in C minor, the Op.30 violin sonatas following in the footsteps of Op.1 (piano trios), Op.9 (string trios) and Op.10 (piano sonatas). Gerald Abraham, writing in The Beethoven Companion, says ‘one grows used to finding that the C minor work in a group is the outstanding piece’. He finds the first movement of this work to be ‘one of Beethoven’s grandest first movements to date in any medium’.
Jan Swafford is slightly less affected, declaring the sonata ‘only modestly fiery compared to the storms that that key usually roused in him’. He reserves greatest praise for the slow movement, ‘a touching Adagio cantabile with no lingering hints of the eighteenth-century galant but rather an inward and spiritual atmosphere of wonderful beauty’.
In this piece Beethoven reverts to a four movement structure, with the slow movement second and a scherzo placed third.
Beethoven is certainly a different animal when operating in C minor. Right from the off there is a tension about this piece, and added urgency to the material that follows. As in all his C minor works Beethoven uses silence to intense dramatic effect, the breaks between the notes as important as the notes themselves. There is a big-boned piano part, too, which could dominate due to its sheer weight, even though the violin has an equal share of the melodic material.
The slow movement lies in Beethoven’s familiar ‘slow movement’ key of A flat major, and has a calming introduction to the theme from the piano. The violin follows almost in step, but gradually the dialogue becomes more animated, especially in the central section.
The third movement is playful, a Scherzo choosing C major briefly as its home. The clipped delivery of its theme is shared between the two instruments, and for a while we are in sunnier climes. Yet the closing Allegro takes us back to more serious business, the instruments shadowing each other again before rushing to a close in the coda. Beethoven toys with a lighter ending but at the close he firmly shuts the door with an emphatic gesture.
This is Beethoven’s most dramatic violin sonata so far, the tension bubbling on the surface. Though it may not cut loose in the same way as his other C minor works there is a great deal of inner strength and a keen sense of purpose. Repeated listening only heightens the admiration for a fine piece of work.
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)
Augustin Dumay (violin), Maria João Pires (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
The drama of this piece is laid at its most bare by Midori Seiler and Jos Van Immerseel, and while some pianists exaggerate the forceful nature of their part, Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff strike the ideal balance. Dumay and Pires offer a very fine digital version too.
The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does also 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 1802 Krommer – Concerto for 2 Clarinets in E flat major Op.35
Next up Sonata no.8 for piano and violin in G major Op.30/3