Richard Whitehouse on a complete cycle of Beethoven’s Sonatas for piano and violin given at the Wigmore Hall over three nights, from Monday 4 – Wednesday 6 July
Monday 4th – Sonatas Op.12 nos.1-3 (1797-8); A minor, Op.24 (1800)
Tuesday 5th – Sonatas in F, Op. 25, ‘Spring’ (1800-1); Op.30 nos.1-3 (1801-2)
Wednesday 6th – Sonatas in A, Op. 47, ‘Kreutzer’ (1802-3); in G, Op. 96 (1812)
Julia Fischer (violin), Igor Levit (piano)
Unlike his symphonies, string quartets or piano sonatas, Beethoven’s violin sonatas cannot be taken as representative of his output as a whole. The first nine were written in barely six years up to the threshold of the composer’s second period, whose ending is duly marked by his final such work. The cycle nevertheless makes for an ideal mini-series as is frequently encountered, with the present one – spread plausibly yet unequally over three recitals – from Julian Fischer and Igor Levit having already been heard in Munich, Berlin, Zurich and Paris.
A violinist who has few equals for consistency of line, with a pianist of abundant insight over a broad repertoire, promised much for this traversal and so it proved – whether in the robust expressive contrasts of the Op. 12 trilogy, the more pronounced differences between those of Opp. 24 and 25, the almost perfect balance that prevails between the widely varied threesome of Op. 30, then the virtuosity and high-flown rhetoric of Op. 47; with the formal subtlety and emotional restraint of Op. 96 at far more of a remove than its temporal distance might suggest.
One of the chief attractions of such a cycle is hearing pieces that rarely surface independently in recital. Hence the Sonata in A which forms an unobtrusive centrepiece to the Op. 12 set, its elegant intermezzo-like Andante preceded by an Allegro whose waltz-like insouciance amply complemented the drily humorous finale. Arguably a little too knowing here, Fischer sounded more at ease with the Sonata in D – not least its questing initial Allegro and tonally deceptive finale, though the central variations felt a little over-calculated for their poise fully to register.
The Sonata in E flat brought out the best in this partnership, Levit pointing up the emotional breadth of the opening Allegro as surely as Fischer maintained the unbroken melodic span of its Adagio, before the duo laid on the rhetoric of the combative finale. Hardly less impressive was the Sonata in A minor – its coursing initial Presto unfolded with propulsive energy, then its successor duly emerging as a quixotic amalgam of slow movement and scherzo such as is offset by a finale whose restless modulations anticipate Schumann, Brahms and even Reger.
Opening the second recital, the ‘Spring’ Sonata presented less of an expressive contrast than expected – not least as Fischer downplayed the Schubertian elegance of its initial Allegro as surely as the Mendelssohnian sentiment of its Adagio. The brief Scherzo was wittiness itself, even if the finale’s easefulness felt a little matter of fact. Not so the Sonata in A that launches the Op. 30 set, the airy lyricism of its Allegro a deft foil to the searching Adagio that may be Beethoven’s most elusive such movement, with the final variations having minx-like charm.
The Sonata in C minor inevitably dominated this sequence, its initial Allegro of an expressive vehemence comparable to its formal ingenuity then the Adagio with a simmering tension that burst forth in the stark coda. Levit made play with the Scherzo’s fractious piano part, while it was Fischer who took the lead in a final Allegro of an energy purposefully held in check until its coruscating coda. Not that the Sonata in G was unduly anti-climactic: the knowingness of its minuet manqué a telling foil to those respectively tensile and deadpan Allegro’s either side.
The final recital comprised the last two sonatas in a short measure yet ideally complementary programme. Too often an exercise in rhetorical overkill, the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata was notable for an unusually close-knit integration of the first movement’s Presto with its Adagio introduction – opening-out without dissipating its driving impetus, then the Andante’s eloquent variations building to a searching coda. The final Presto capped the whole with fine style, its underlying tarantella replete with a teasing archness and sufficient pathos to make it a fitting conclusion.
Nine years on and the Sonata in G closes Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ second period with a poise at times verging on the ethereal. Fischer and Levit amply evoked such a quality in the unhurried opening Allegro, its trills and arpeggios as whimsical as they were profound, then the Adagio plumbed depths as were deftly offset on seguing into the Scherzo with its terse rhythmic gait and winsome trio. If the final Allegro felt at all uneventful, the inwardness and decisiveness of its closing two variations were tellingly conveyed as the work (and the cycle) neared its end.
And that was it – with, as in the previous two recitals, no room for encores or for Beethoven’s relatively minor sundry pieces for violin and piano. No matter, this was an impressive as well as an absorbing traversal – not least for its underlining those collaborative strengths as makes the Fischer/Levit duo a potent one. Hopefully it will be taking this music into the studio at the earliest opportunity, so leaving a permanent record of three evenings as amply reinforced the strengths of what remains the most significant contribution to its genre over two centuries on.
You can read Arcana’s interview with Tasmin Little about the Beethoven sonatas here