Richard Strauss
Violin Sonata in E♭ major, op.18

Media Review / Listening Diary 2015-10-03


2015-10-03 — Original posting
2016-08-07 — Brushed up for better readability
2017-09-17 — Added recording with Vilde Frang & Michail Lifits


Outline


Introduction

It’s a while since I have posted a “Listening Diary” entry. This feels rather like a “Listening Monthly Digest” at the moment; I hope to return to more frequent postings of this kind! This particular post is about the Violin Sonata in E♭ major, op.18 by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949), a composition that Strauss finished in 1888. It is his last chamber music composition. I used to have this composition on vinyl (actually, I still have it in the basement, but I have long stopped listening to LPs), on an LP containing also César Franck’s Violin Sonata (see my Listening Diary of 2012-07-30).

I have long been looking for that same recording with Ulf Hoelscher and the young Michel Béroff — to no avail. Now, I have been listening into two CD recordings of Strauss’ violin sonata, as preparation for an upcoming concert review. Additional recordings are added to this posting, as added to my collection, time permitting.

The Media

Jascha Haifetz & Arpád Sándor (1934)

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 46

Arthur Rubinstein — The Complete Album Collection
CD #46: César Franck, Richard Strauss: Violin Sonatas

Jascha Haifetz & Arthur RubinsteinArpád Sándor

SONY Classical 88691936912 (142 CDs / 2 DVDs, mono / stereo); ℗ / © 2011
Documentation 162 pp., track listing on CD sleeve

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), UPC-A barcode
Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), Top cover
amazon media link
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Ulf Hoelscher & Michel Béroff (LP only)

Franck / Strauss, R.: Violin Sonatas — Hoelascher, Béroff; LP cover
Franck / Strauss, R.: Violin Sonatas — Hoelascher, Béroff; LP cover (back)

César Franck, Richard Strauss: Violin Sonatas

Ulf Hoelscher & Michel Béroff

EMI 1C 065-02 995 Q (LP, stereo); ℗ 1978
Booklet: (LP cover)
Currently unavailable (neither as LP nor as CD or download)

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Vladimir Spivakov & Sergei Bezrodnyi (2001)

Franck / Ravel / Strauss: Violin sonatas, Spivakov, CD, cover

César Franck, Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss: Violin Sonatas

Vladimir Spivakov & Sergei Bezrodnyi

Capriccio 10 895 (CD, stereo); ℗ 2001
Booklet: 20 pp. de/en/fr

Franck / Ravel / Strauss: Violin sonatas, Spivakov, CD, EAN-13 barcode
amazon media link
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Vilde Frang & Michail Lifits (2010)

Vilde Frang & Michail Lifits, Violin Sonatas (Bartók, Grieg, Strauss) — CD cover

Edvard Grieg, Béla Bartók, Richard Strauss: Violin Sonatas

Vilde Frang & Michail Lifits

Warner Classics 9 476239 2 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2011
Booklet: 11 pp. en/de/fr

Vilde Frang & Michail Lifits, Violin Sonatas (Bartók, Grieg, Strauss) — CD, EAN-13 barcode
amazon media link
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The Recordings

Ever since I acquired the above LP with Ulf Hoelscher & Michel Béroff, I was fascinated by this violin sonata. It struck me as excellent composition in general, but also as so obviously and undeniably exhibiting Richard Strauss’ harmonic style, and as brilliant virtuoso piece: even though I haven’t listened to that recording in over 30 years, it remains deeply engraved in my memory. Too bad it is no longer available (not even as LP, except sporadically as used item, at exorbitant prices), and it is a total mystery to me why this has never made it onto a CD. In this recording, Ulf Hoelscher is excellent, and the young Michel Béroff is simply brilliant!

Out of desperation, I have purchased a “replacement recording”, played by Vladimir Spivakov & Sergei Bezrodnyi, recorded 2001, which incidentally also combines the Franck and Strauss violin sonatas (plus the sonata by Maurice Ravel, see also my Listening Diary of 2012-07-30 for a short discussion on the Violin Sonata by César Franck). I wasn’t really happy with that recording. I now have a second recording, played by Jascha Haifetz & Arpád Sándor, recorded in 1934, as part of a CD containing also César Franck’s Violin Sonata, played by Jascha Haifetz & Arthur Rubinstein. This CD again is part of the Arthur Rubinstein Complete Album Collection (which uses the original LP track set on CDs). So, here I now only touch upon the recordings with Haifetz and with Spivakov.

Amendment(s)

Based on a radio comparison / review (Sibelius violin concerto), as well as on concert encounters with the artist, I acquired another recording of this sonata, with Vilde Frang & Michail Lifits from 2010 — finally a recording that (IMO) come close to, partly even exceeds the one with Ulf Hoelscher and Michel Béroff! With the advent of this new recording, I have made some adjustments to the ratings for the other recordings.


Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949): Violin Sonata in E♭ major, op.18

The sonata comes in three movements:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo (4/4)
  2. Improvisation: Andante cantabile (4/4)
  3. Finale: Andante (6/8)Allegro (3/4)

The Interpretations

For these two recordings: both Jascha Haifetz and Vladimir Spivakov are excellent artists who have no problem with Strauss’ sonata:

Jascha Haifetz & Arpád Sándor (1934)

For many, Jascha Haifetz is the violinist of the 20th century. His technique is flawless, his virtuosity undeniable. Of course, one can hear the age of that recording (from 1934) — not just from the fact that it is mono only (the sound is amazingly good for this age, though), but also because Haifetz uses portamento, even the occasional glissando, which today’s artists would barely do to nearly the same extent. Also, his vibrato is fairly strong and fast (still fairly harmonic, though, just as we know it from that artist), his rubato would probably be seen as excessive by most today. But all this can be attributed to Zeitgeist.

The tempo in the second movement is so slow that one might feel the Andante cantabile perhaps on the quavers—but the movement is in 2/4 (not 4/8!), and a tempo of ♩=28 definitely way below Andante, even when reading in quavers.

Piano Challenge

The real challenge comes with the piano part: I get the impression that Arpád Sándor was at (or beyond) his technical limitations: in the first movement, there are many missed keys. The second movement is somewhat better, as this isn’t that much of a challenge to the pianist.

The last movement again features a difficult piano part. Here, the tempo is OK (♩=136), the coordination with the violin is OK, but the piano playing isn’t brilliant (again, missing keys in difficult passages). I’m not impressed at all.

On top of all this, the piano is terribly out of tune! I can’t understand that for a recording with an artist such as Haifetz the piano wasn’t properly tuned. The tuning is so bad that it makes this recording really hard to listen to, let alone enjoy.

Duration: 10’36” / 8’06” / 7’28” — 26’10” total
Rating: 2.7 (3 / 2 / 3)


Vladimir Spivakov & Sergei Bezrodnyi (2001)

In the 2001 recording with Vladimir Spivakov and Sergei Bezrodnyi, the piano challenges are circumvented by selecting a rather slow tempo: to me, this is maybe a fast Andante, but not Allegro ma non troppo. With this, the movement loses a lot of its brilliance, the piano part often sounds too heavy, almost clumsy at times (at least in comparison to other recordings). Also as already mentioned in my Listening Diary of 2012-07-30, Spivakov’s vibrato is fairly strong, nervous and omnipresent. Too much for my taste, especially when the tempo is relatively slow. Overall, the first movement still is more rewarding to listen to than in Haifetz’ recording: at least, the piano is tuned properly, and the playing is clean.

In the slow movement, my main objections are in the strength of the vibrato, and in the lack of differentiation, especially dynamically. The tempo,♩=38, is faster, more Andante than with Haifetz / Sándor, but still only Andante on the quavers, not on the crotchets. The movement sounds relatively coarse, lacking the finer expressive details. Also, I found the acoustics to be a bit strange, especially for the piano, which sometimes sounds as if played in a bath room.

In the last movement, the technical challenges are again “softened” by choosing a moderate tempo: at♩=124, that movement just barely sounds Allegro. Both parts are played properly, clean, but the movement isn’t really brilliant, sometimes on the heavy side.

Duration: 12’14” / 7’49” / 8’43” — 28’45” total
Rating: 3.3 (4 / 3 / 3)


Vilde Frang & Michail Lifits (2010)

The 2010 recording with Vilde Frang and Michail Lifits is my latest acquisition. Among the recordings discussed here, it is the only one that can compete with (my memory of) the one by Ulf Hoelscher and Michel Béroff. The timings in this recording are somewhat deceptive, e.g., in the last movement, the Andante parts make up for the long(est) overall time, even though the tempo in the Allegro part is comparable to the one in the other recordings. The same applies to the first movement with its lyrical segments, see below.

Allegro ma non troppo

In the Allegro ma non troppo, Vilde Frang uses an amazing (maybe unusual, but not really irritating) amount of rubato. The atmosphere is swaying between imperious and pensive, reflective, even lyrical sections. The piano is superb, virtuosic, clean—maybe not quite as brilliantly virtuosic and extroverted as (in my memory) Michel Béroff. Aside from the rubato, both partners use very diligent agogics: with the exception of the stretta / coda, the main theme is not just urging forward throughout, but typically gives the main accent a little more time. In addition, there are the lyrical, sometimes almost dreamy segments: very subtle playing—excellent!

Vilde Frang’s playing is excellent, too—very clean, brilliant, but not excessively pushing herself into the foreground: excellent partnership between the two musicians! I don’t expect a vibrato-free performance for this music: to me, her vibrato feels natural, expressive, not exceedingly nervous—appropriate, overall.

Andante cantabile

Here, the tempo differs from that of Haifetz / Sándor (♩=28), is close to that of Spivakov / Bezrodnyi (♩=38): the ♩=33 again is very slow for an Andante cantabile. However, here, the artists mostly don’t play in quavers, keep playing in (slow) crotchets, focusing on atmosphere and lyricism. Also, the score features plenty of passages in hemidemisemiquavers, which imposes an upper limit to the tempo. Also here, there is a very distinct, expressive rubato, following Strauss’ instructions in the score.

Andante — Allegro

A very dark, almost dull Andante introduction on the piano, gradually building up tension. And then, the Allegro is fulminant in its virtuosic parts, with excellent playing both on the piano and the violin! But the artists don’t just rush through: they take their time for the lyrical segments, all suddenly soft & mellow—all the more they throw themselves furiously into the virtuosic outbursts. The reaches ♩=144, yet both parts remain clear, Vilde Frang’s intonation is flawless, her spiccato astounding. A dramatic interpretation with large contrasts, with more rubato and agogics than any of the other recordings.

Duration: 11’42” / 8’13” / 9’33” — 29’25” total
Rating: 5.0 (5 / 5 / 5)


Conclusion

Overall I can’t recommend the older CD recordings:

  • Haifetz/Sándor: seriously flawed because of the piano tuning, and the piano part is rather weak by itself, far from Haifetz’ level of playing
  • Spivakov/Bezrodnyi: this can’t compete with Hoelscher/Béroff of Frang/Lifits by any means. My primary irritations are with Spivakov’s nervous vibrato, but also the general impression (but I prefer it over Haifetz/Sándor)
  • I certainly would prefer the one with Ulf Hoelscher & Michel Béroff over these two, primarily because of the brilliance in the piano part in the fast movements: too bad this is not currently available on CD. This is not “glorification in memory”. Especially for the fast movement, I remember exactly how they sound(ed), even after over 30 years!
  • My new favorite—genuinely, I’m not making that up!—is the newest recording, with Vilde Frang and Michail Lifits! Even though I have not listened to my LP, I think this beats my previous favorite with Hoelscher and Béroff.

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