Monastery of San Francesco Di Civitella in the Sabine Mountains (1812) by Joseph Anton Koch
Sonata no.6 for piano and violin in A major Op.30/1 (1802, Beethoven aged 31)
2. Adagio molto espressivo
3. Allegretto con variazioni
Dedication Tsar Alexander I
by Ben Hogwood
Background and Critical Reception
The Op.30 violin sonatas stand at a crossroads in Beethoven’s output, drawing the early works to a close and beginning the more exploratory middle period. There is more evidence for the ‘equalising’ of the instruments, too, the violin on an equal footing with the keyboard instrument, now firmly established a fortepiano.
This set of three works was dedicated to Tsar Alexander I, in the view of Jan Swafford a convenient gesture ‘to a figure famously allied to enlightened ideals…who might also be moved to do something for a composer now and then’.
Commentators tend to gloss over this first work in the set and head for the stormy C minor work, placed second, or the bubbly third work in G major. However Gerald Abraham, writing in The Beethoven Companion, stops to take in the ‘beautiful three-part writing of the opening’ and the ‘violin cantilena of the slow movement’. Bernhard Uske, writing booklet notes for Deutsche Grammophon, exaggerates the violin-piano relationship. ‘The violin’s role is declamatory and evocative, the piano’s is to energize and keep things moving, as the need arises’.
Beethoven’s friend, fellow composer Carl Czerny, found ‘peaceful, tender seriousness’ in the first movement, described the second as ‘almost like a ballad’ and found the theme for the final movement variations ‘more speaking than sentimental’. In using this format Beethoven put aside his original version of the finale, saving it for another violin and piano work – the Kreutzer sonata, completed the following year.
Beethoven may be at a stylistic crossroads, moving on to something more forward-looking, but he certainly has control over his musical destination. This is fluent, attractive music, full of melody and good feeling.
This first of three sonatas does feel a little ‘older’, however – more Mozartian. The piano leads off and both instruments stay close together with elegant lines – though the violin begins to take its chances to sing more obviously. Things take a slightly darker turn in the middle as the music moves towards minor keys, but this proves to be a brief cloud on the horizon as the original material returns.
In the second movement the violin adopts the poise of a singer for a highly expressive solo, Beethoven taking an effective ‘less is more’ approach, lightly textured and relatively carefree.
The theme and variations begin with a simple melody shared by the violin, before a capricious first variation. Often the hands of the piano appear to be operating different instruments, with the left hand in triplets and the right using trills in Variation 3, before perky multiple notes in the fourth variation suggest the composer is exploring more of the violin’s capabilities. The minor key variation repeats into itself before a sprightly coda, Beethoven teasing the listener towards the end as the two instruments spar politely.
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)
Dumay and Pires come into their own in the slow movement of this work with a highly expressive performance, even though their tempo choice is on the fast side. As always the period instrument duo of Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel are illuminating, while the richer tones of Grumiaux, Suk and Menuhin are complemented by beautifully phrased piano playing from Haskil, Panenka and Kempff respectively. The newest version, from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen, is among the finest.
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 Hummel – Piano Quintet in E flat major Op.87
Next up Sonata no.7 for piano and violin in C minor Op.30/2