BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas Nos.5 & 9. Perlman/Ashkenazy (Decca) – INKPOT

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No.9 in A major,
Op.47 “Kreutzer”

Violin Sonata No.5 in F major,
Op.24 “Spring”

Itzhak Perlman violin
Vladimir Ashkenazy piano

DECCA Legends 458 618-2
[59:57] mid-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
These performances, now more than a quarter century old, have not only stood the test of time as benchmark interpretations but sound better than ever in their 24-bit remastering. Both Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy hit something of a peak with these recordings, and had already meshed into one of the great partnerships of chamber-music, performing together in recitals frequently and recording together on one another’s labels (at that time Ashkenazy was a Decca artist, Perlman signed onto RCA).

Although Beethoven (left) originally wrote the A major Sonata for English violinist George Bridgetower, a quarrel between Beethoven and Bridgetower led the composer to dedicate the sonata to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. However, Kreutzer was grossly insulted when he learned the piece was not originally intended for him. He never acknowledged the dedication nor played the work in public, and acted hostile toward both Beethoven and his music from that moment on.

Part of Kreutzer’s antipathy toward this sonata may also have been due to the prominent role given to the piano; in Beethoven’s day, the virtuoso typically expected preferential treatment, even in chamber music, a practice toward which Beethoven did not kowtow one bit. Even so, the sonata does not lack for brilliance, and Beethoven himself said that he wrote the work “in the manner of a concerto.” This accounts for the almost orchestral treatment of the first movement, where the piano threatens to swallow the violin on several occasions, and the violinist is relegated much of the time to playing at the lower reaches of his instrument.

The attributes we normally associate with Beethoven’s orchestral work – the larger-than-life canvas, Olympian drama and seriousness of purpose – are all in evidence here. Perlman’s first notes come across as both a bright ray of light in A major and a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down at the feet of fate. Fate answers, through the piano, in A minor. Ashkenazy does not play his passage as a portent of tragedy, however, but as mystery, a quiet veil of uncertainty much like the introduction of the Fourth Symphony. We may stride through life with confidence, but we cannot be sure what will ensue around us.

Once the Rondo begins, a battle of titans ensues, though in Perlman and Ashkenazy’s case, it is a battle they wage together, not against one another. They are very much of one mind on this piece and treat it not as chamber music, but as a symphonic utterance, with Perlman playing with full tone and Ashkenazy orchestrating from the keyboard with smoothness and power. Flashes of humor erupt, but of the boisterousness Beethoven expressed in the orchestra hall.

The theme and variations at the center of this sonata is, again, Olympian in scale, but the tone is one of serenity, much like the Larghetto of the Violin Concerto. While not scaling down his playing, Ashkenazy shows great sensitivity here, and while he may not express the sheer playfulness of Martha Argerich in her later recording with Perlman , there is a sense of joy very much in keeping with the proceedings. Perlman is perhaps more unbuttoned at times than Ashkenazy, but the two are of such agreement that it does not detract, but adds to the music-making at hand. At 16 minutes, theirs is a leisurely but never slow pace, allowing us to bask in the beauty and tranquillity of Beethoven’s writing.

Just as the stillness of the Violin Concerto’s Larghetto gives way to light-heartedness, so the calm of the Variations of the sonata gives way to joy. For Perlman and Ashkenazy, this is the large-boned joviality of the orchestral works, with a certain grace and dignity that keeps it from becoming too lively, but anything less in this performance would be anti-climactic.

The F major Sonata, on the other hand, is a work that cannot help but be lively. The first of Beethoven’s duo sonatas written in four instead of three movements, it is subtitled “Spring” for its freshness and sunny disposition. If there were a Shakespeare play that would best describe this sonata, it would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream for its fairy-world lightness and good spirits only occasionally and briefly shadowed by darker clouds.

Perlman and Ashkenazy jump into the cheerful atmosphere of the Allegro with a grace and buoyancy that is utterly disarming, and totally the opposite of the seriousness that marked their “Kreutzer.” There is warmth and subtle humor here, though they do not shortchange the dark corners they occasionally come across. As in the “Kreutzer,” their teamwork is a joy to hear, with one player finishing the other’s musical thoughts on more than one occasion.

The Adagio molto espressivo is just that – a tranquil meditation of the kind in which Beethoven excelled. Ashkenazy plays with a shimmering timbre while Perlman’s violin tone floats above like gossamer. Even in the minor-key diversions, they play with a lightness that both typifies and transcends the music into something ethereal. A brief Scherzo with an off-key violin part comes off with the innocence of a game of hide-and-seek, while the final Rondo spins with an elegance and joy befitting the entire piece.

Some of this light-hearted fun found its way into the packaging of this release. On the cover, a young Perlman stands next to Ashkenazy at the piano, looking at his score and pursing his lips as though thinking, “Ooh! That’s interesting.” His bemused expression is shown in greater detail inside the case, behind the disc. On the inside front cover of the booklet is an equally amusing shot of Ashkenazy bending over Perlman’s music stand, looking at the camera with a rueful look worthy of Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther films as he all but says, “Do you mind?”

The photos are a decided improvement over the original LP covers reproduced on the back inside and outside covers of the booklet (the “Kreutzer” with Second Sonata and the “Spring” with the Fourth), with illustrations that turned Beethoven into something from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Fortunately, those drawings did not scare too many people away, and the performances contained in those covers has been charming and thrilling us ever since.

JONATHAN YUNGKANS is not a fan of “The Hobbit,” except perhaps when he’s listening to Beethoven, in which case he’s not reading anything at all.

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815: 2.11.2000 Jonathan Yungkans

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