Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Piano and Violin No.4 in A minor, op.23

Media Review / Comparison


2011-12-17 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2013-07-05 — New standard layout applied
2014-10-31 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-06-23 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction

This is another note on the recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano & violin in my music collection, about the sonata in A minor, op.23. See also the summary on the postings covering Beethoven’s Sonatas for Piano & Violin.

Below you find my comments on the recordings of the Sonata for Piano and Violin No.4 in A minor op.23 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). References to the recordings are given in the bottom of each section. Here’s a short list of the recordings in this comparison, in alphabetic order:


The Movements

The movements in this sonata are

  1. Presto (6/8)
  2. Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto (2/4)
  3. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

The (measured) metronome numbers are approximate values only.


Comments on the Interpretations

Yehudi Menuhin, Wilhelm Kempff (1970)

Beethoven: Violin sonatas vol.1, Menuhin, Kempff, CD cover

Beethoven, The Complete Violin Sonatas, Vol.1: Sonatas opp.12, 23, 24; Rondo in G, WoO 41; 12 Variations on “Se vuol ballare” from “Le nozze di Figaro”

Yehudi Menuhin, Wilhelm Kempff

DGG 459 433-2 (stereo, 2 CD); ℗ 1970

Beethoven: Violin sonatas vol.1, Menuhin, Kempff, UPC-A barcode
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Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff (1970) — for general comments see op.12/1

Comments on the Performance

I. Presto (6/8)

Duration: 8’41”; 3/8 = 114
Definitely too slow (allegretto at best!), rather clumsy, too relaxed.

II. Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto (2/4)

Duration: 8’44”; 1/4 = 74
Menuhin’s tone may be “broken” — but at least they are showing a good, balanced partnership. I’m missing the “più Allegretto“. On the other hand, the movement is very relaxed, calm (but is it meant to be calm?).

III. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

Duration: 6’07”; 1/2 = 132
Too slow, lacking attack and tension, the violin tone is often “broken”. Then, the recording sounds “fuzzy”. It’s not clear to me whether this is Kempff using too much pedal, or due to the recording technique.

Recommendation:No
Rating:2.0 (2 / 3 / 1)

Arthur Grumiaux, Clara Haskil (1957)

Beethoven: Violin sonatas, Grumiaux, Haskil, CD cover

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas, Complete (opp. 12, 23, 24, 30, 47, 96)

Arthur Grumiaux, Clara Haskil

Brilliant Classics 93329 (mono, 3 CD); licensed from Decca

VlSon_Grumiauz_Haskil
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Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil (1957) — for general comments see op.12/1

Comments on the Performance

I. Presto (6/8)

Duration: 5’21” (second repeat not done); 3/8 = 136
Too bad for the artists: the recording is rather modest — mono, with extreme reverberation. The tempo is rather relaxed, maybe allegro (not presto), plus, there are some tempo instabilities — as if the artists weren’t always quite sure how fast to play. Also, there are occasional (minor) coordination issues between the artists.

II. Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto (2/4)

Duration: 5’45” (repetition not done); 1/4 = 72
Positive: very cantabile in the violin. However, the violin is so strong & dominating that it is often hard to hear the melody in the piano. There are occasional instabilities in the tempo. And the tempo is a slow andante at best, not “più Allegretto“.

III. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

Duration: 5’26”; 1/2 = 146
The piano sound is unclear, “fuzzy”. The violin dominates (far too much). Five bars into the final a minor section Grumiaux makes a bad counting error. With the violin sound so much dominating, there was probably no way the recording technician could cover that up!

Recommendation:No
Rating:2.0 (2 / 2 / 2)

David Oistrakh, Lev Oborin (1962)

Beethoven: Violin sonatas, Oistrakh, Oborin, CD cover

Beethoven: The Sonatas for Piano and Violin (opp. 12, 23, 24, 30, 47, 96)

David Oistrakh, Lev Oborin

Philips 468 406-2 (stereo, 4 CD); ℗ 2001

Beethoven: Violin sonatas, Oistrakh, Oborin, CD, UPC-A barcode
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David Oistrakh and Lev Oborin (1962) — for general comments see op.12/1

Comments on the Performance

I. Presto (6/8)

Duration: 5’39” (second repeat not done); 3/8 = 124
The violin can hardly be heard at all (e.g., at the very beginning!). When it is audible, it sounds like from behind a thick curtain. In addition, the tempo is slow, certainly not more than allegro, not a presto!

II. Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto (2/4)

Duration: 6’30” (repetition not done); 1/4 = 66
Just like Perlman, a slow adagio — way too slow. The articulation is clear, but very stiff. The one positive aspect here: the sound balance of the recording is better than in the Presto.

III. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

Duration: 6’09”; 1/2 = 128
Again far too slow (where’s the “allegro molto“?), no tension at all; the adagio insert is disruptive rather than connective (not just as a whole, but also between the two players). The violin is too much in the background (as already in the first movement). Maybe the best parts in this piece are the two ff sections in the middle and towards the end of the movement.

Recommendation:No
Rating:2.0 (2 / 2 / 2)

Itzhak Perlman, Vladimir Ashkenazy (1975)

Beethoven: Violin sonatas, Perlman, Ashkenazy, CD cover

Beethoven: The Violin Sonatas, Complete (opp. 12, 23, 24, 30, 47, 96)

Itzhak Perlman, Vladimir Ashkenazy

Decca 421 453-2 (stereo, 4 CD); ℗ 1974 / © 1988

Beethoven: Violin sonatas, Perlman, Ashkenazy, UPC-A barcode
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Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy (1975) — for general comments see op.12/1

Comments on the Performance

I. Presto (6/8)

Duration: 7’50”; 3/8 = 136
The recording quality is modest, the sound not brilliant, the tempo could be a tad faster; an “OK” interpretation otherwise.

II. Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto (2/4)

Duration: 6’45” (repetition not done); 1/4 = 64
Carefully articulated, nicely formed / played, expressive. However, too much vibrato, and — more important even — the tempo is way too slow: maybe a slow adagio (perhaps an allegretto if taken as 4/8).

III. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

Duration: 5’41”; 1/2 = 146
The tempo here is better (compared to the interpretations above), even though it still often feels like an andante and not an allegro molto. The best characterization that comes to my mind is “sumptuous” (rather than dramatic, except maybe for the ff parts). I don’t think it was the composer’s intent to write a sumptuous last movement!

Recommendation:No (conventional, nothing special, really)
Rating:3.0 (3 / 3 / 3)

Renaud Capuçon, Frank Braley (2009)

VlSon_Capuçon_Braley

Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Violin & Piano (opp. 12, 23, 24, 30, 47, 96)

Renaud Capuçon, Frank Braley

Virgin Classics LV 7873 (stereo, 3 CD); ℗ / © 2010

Beethoven: Violin sonatas, Capuçon, Braley, EAN-13 barcode
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Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley (2009) — for general comments see op.12/1

Comments on the Performance

I. Presto (6/8)

Duration: 5’14” (second repeat not done); 3/8 = 136
Well coordinated, careful, accurate, lively, also in the agogics; the tempo is OK (could be slightly faster, maybe).

II. Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto (2/4)

Duration: 5’44” (repetition not done); 1/4 = 78
Very detailed, accurate, excellent partnership. Capuçon often plays without vibrato — unfortunately, sometimes in the center of the movement he uses vibrato in the wrong places (i.e., not just for emphasis).

III. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

Duration: 5’18”; 1/2 = 148
To me, this demonstrates that this is maybe one of the most difficult movements in all the Beethoven violin sonatas — certainly if one sticks to the traditional tempo. Especially in the sections where there’s nothing but entire notes (whole bars), or where the two artists exchange pairs of quarter notes, a loss in tension is almost inevitable. This is reinforced by several fermatas and an adagio insert. All of this makes it difficult to “hold the movement together”. On the other hand, if one selects a faster tempo (faster than “common expectation”), the movement becomes technically demanding in the rapid part and in the sections with rhythmic intricacies!

Although I can’t really point to specific bars / deficiencies in this interpretation, it left behind some dissatisfaction — either with their agogic concept, or maybe because I felt that they didn’t quite manage to “keep the music together”?

Recommendation:I prefer the recordings below.
Rating:4.0 (4 / 4 / 4)

Gidon Kremer, Martha Argerich (1987)

Beethoven: Violin sonatas vol.2, Kremer, Argerich, CD cover

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas Nos. 4 & 5 (opp. 23, 24)

Gidon Kremer, Martha Argerich

DG 419 787-2 (stereo); ℗ / © 1987

Beethoven: Violin sonatas vol.2, Kremer, Argerich, UPC-A barcode
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Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich (1987). Gidon Kremer (*1947) and Martha Argerich (*1941) recorded Beethoven’s op.23 and op.24 two years after their first CD with Beethoven violin sonatas, see op.12/1 (the continuation of the series only took place in 1994).

Comments on the Performance

I. Presto (6/8)

Duration: 6’57”; 3/8 = 144
A presto, at last! Vivid, agile, fast — the tempo sometimes feels a bit pushed, but this is probably in the nature of a presto. As listener, I tend to relax when they slow down a bit, and when they then resume the tempo, I feel pushed / pulled. At a first glance, it sometimes feels as if at some points (e.g., at the beginning of the first repetition) they remembered that they wanted to play this faster. But this is likely meant to be “large scale agogics”. It probably works better in concerts than on CD.

II. Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto (2/4)

Duration: 7’20”; 1/4 = 88
Finally, someone who gets the tempo right. And the articulation is excellent. The artists perform in long phrases, the tone is emotional, the partnership, dialog and coordination are excellent, it’s vivid, alert, they emphasize long phrases with agogics — and still, it’s not rushed, mostly serene, calm!

III. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

Duration: 5’23”; 1/2 = 150
Although only marginally faster than Capuçon / Braley, this time, the tempo feels OK. Kremer / Argerich keep up the tension, their interpretation is dramatic, vivid, dynamic, emphasizing the long phrases. Martha Argerich explores the full dynamic range of the instruments — and more. When she needs to compromise between expression and “nice sound”, she always votes for expression!

Recommendation:Yes
Rating:4.8 (5 / 5 / 4)

Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov (2008)

Beethoven: Violin sonatas, Faust, Melnikov, CD cover

Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Piano & Violin (opp. 12, 23, 24, 30, 47, 96)

Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov

Harmonia mundi HMC 902025.27 (stereo, 3 CD + 1 CD/DVD); ℗ 2009

Beethoven: Violin sonatas, Faust, Melnikov, UPC-A barcode
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Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov (2008) — for general comments see op.12/1

Comments on the Performance

I. Presto (6/8)

Duration: 7’03”; 3/8 = 140
The tempo is a tad slower than Kremer’s. However, it definitely still feels like a presto. Very lively agogics (in shorter phrases than Kremer / Argerich), very careful, detailed in articulation and phrasing, agile, with constant presence / attention, excellent coordination! Two nice little details: Isabelle Faust plays an extra ornament in the second repetition. Also, they make an extra-long fermata in the break between the second repeat (recapitulation) and the coda: nice, interesting!

II. Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto (2/4)

Duration: 7’06”; 1/4 = 88
Compared to Kremer / Argerich: they use shorter scale agogics, put more emphasis on short phrases / articulation (perfect articulation throughout!), the violin tone is more controlled than with Kremer. The tempo is pretty exactly the same as Kremer’s, but the articulation is more accurate. The interpretation is more dramatic, telling, emotional (and they both add some extra ornaments). Then, I can’t resist mentioning Melnikov’s beautiful piano sound, especially in the bass (OK, some of this goes to Steinway, presumably), and his perfect & detailed articulation — should extend the rating scale!!!

III. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

Duration: 5’08”; 1/2 = 170
Once again, a different world! Faust / Melnikov take the alla breve / Allegro molto literal. The speed is neck-breaking, and yet, they appear to have no technical problem at all: stupendous! The reward for obeying the tempo annotation is that all problems that others have with “keeping things together” are gone at once. It all makes sense, one can enjoy the entire melodies, ornaments are what they are meant to be (not micro-melodies). The tension is maintained throughout the movement. There’s drama, extreme virtuosity (for music of that time), and it all remains clear, transparent. Amazing how Isabelle Faust indeed dares playing extreme pp sections without vibrato at all. And Alexander Melnikov is a very attentive partner, carefully tuning his part to the sound of the violin.

Recommendation:YES
Rating:5.0 (5 / 5 / 5)

Addendum

If you are not an active pianist or violinist, you might want to follow this music using a pocket score. These typically come in two volumes:

While musicians, of course, prefer a full size score edition, such as Henle’s, also in two volumes:



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