November 05, 2020


Beethoven: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-10 (complete). Jerilyn Jorgensen, violin; Cullan Bryant, piano. Albany Records. $49.98 (4 CDs).

     The extent to which historically informed performance has moved into the mainstream is nowhere clearer than in these exceptional readings of Beethoven’s 10 sonatas for violin and piano – which feature Jerilyn Jorgensen playing a 1797 Andrea Carolus Leeb violin using multiple period bows, and Cullan Bryant performing on five different fortepianos of Beethoven’s time that, collectively, sound about as different as it is possible for superficially similar instruments to sound. This Albany Records four-CD set is nothing short of revelatory, not only because of the excellence of the interpretations – and they are excellent – but also because it so seamlessly brings a 21st-century audience into the sound world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, without in any way compromising the effectiveness of the music. Indeed, one of the elements most worthy of celebration here is that these sonatas are more impressive when heard on appropriate instruments than when performed, as they almost invariably are, on modern ones.

     For quite some time after historic-performance practices became a serious element of music around 50 years ago, there was a certain academic quality about many of the readings: they often tended to be on the stiff side, as if somehow the more straitlaced era in which the music was written (especially Baroque music) needed to be reflected in a certain level of care and caution in reproducing what composers wrote. The emotional abandon associated with Romantic and post-Romantic music just seemed inappropriate for the Baroque and Classical eras. But gradually, musicians came to realize that there is no dearth of emotional involvement in pre-Romantic music, which is every bit as expressive as later works – but written for instruments designed to bring forth the emotional content in ways quite different from those of more-modern instruments. Mozart’s horn concertos, for example, are thrilling and amusing in turn, far more so on the natural horn for which they were written than on the much more even-sounding valved horn of today: the sound quality of a run changes during the note sequence, and the sonic environment of the higher notes in Mozart’s time is quite different from that in the lower notes. This is also the case when it comes to keyboard instruments. Mozart and Beethoven wrote for five-to-six-octave-spanning fortepianos with completely different pedal arrangements from those on modern instruments, and with different internal structure, construction materials, key action, and size (hence, sound production). These composers’ music sounds marvelous on modern instruments, but it simply does not sound as the composers intended it to sound – and now that top-notch modern players are thoroughly comfortable with fortepianos, now that violinists know how to handle instruments with different neck sets, differently arched bodies, and a variety of bow designs, it is finally possible to enter the sound world (and thus the emotional world) into which the composers intended to invite listeners.

     This world is very different from the one typically associated with the Beethoven violin-and-piano sonatas. Many of the sonatas favor the piano, with the violin taking on more of an obbligato role, but the instrumental balance when the correct instruments are used shows the differentiation between them much more clearly, and leads to a more-even sound for the sonatas even when the piano part is dominant. The three earliest sonatas (Op. 12), which tend to get short shrift from most performers, here sound like works intended for skilled amateurs (which is how Beethoven designed them), but ones that would be quite a stretch for many amateur players using the intended instruments, whose tonal coloration is quite different from that of their more-modern descendants. The A minor sonata, Op. 23, gains considerable heft when heard in this recording, with a level of emotional involvement deepened by the evenness of tone of the violin vs. the differing tonal environments heard from the fortepiano in its different registers and pedaling. The paired F major sonata, Op. 24, known as Frühlingsonate and more popular than the A minor, here complements Op. 23 instead of eclipsing it: the two works do sound like a pair, emphasizing different emotions and moods in a highly complementary way.

     The three sonatas of Op. 30 are even fuller of revelatory moments in these readings. No. 1 in A, the least known, turns out to have some distinctive auditory elements in its comparatively straightforward opening movement, and some very clever contrasting of sound, not just rhythm and tempo, in the variations that make up its finale. No. 2 in C minor is better balanced and less dramatically stormy as Jorgensen and Bryant perform it than in readings using the full sonic capabilities of modern violins and pianos, while the exceptional jocularity of No. 3 in G comes through to far better effect here – and far more directness of expression – than it usually does. The Jorgensen/Bryant readings of these three sonatas are impressively eloquent. And the original-instrument approach also serves beautifully in Beethoven’s two last and by far best-known violin sonatas. No. 9 in A, the “Kreutzer” (which Rodolphe Kreutzer never played and appears to have disdained), speaks here with poise, elegance and emotional balance that fully justify the work’s exceptional length of 40-plus minutes. The very opening, with the unaccompanied violin playing double, triple, even quadruple stops in A and the fortepiano strangely responding in C and then D minor, is exceptionally effective in setting the scene for a work that defies expectations again and again, as Beethoven uses the sonic capabilities of the violin and fortepiano to emphasize and de-emphasize structural elements with tremendous skill. To cite just one example, when the composer pushes the violin to its highest range in the second movement, listeners really hear the difference of sound quality, not just tessitura. This is an exceptional performance of an exceptional sonata. And the 10th and final work, whose style was specifically adapted by Beethoven to suit the tastes of the French school of violin playing exemplified by Pierre Rode, sounds exceptionally different from the “Kreutzer,” not only because Beethoven’s compositional style had evolved between 1803 and 1812 but also because the basic sonorities of violin and fortepiano had not changed significantly in that time period – leaving it up to the composer to find new forms of expressiveness within the capabilities of the instruments available to him. The serenity and overall gentleness of this sonata come through with complete clarity in this performance, with the performers’ nuanced sensitivity to the sound of their instruments producing a level of expressive clarity that is simply unavailable when the work is heard on modern instruments. Every reading in this first-rate set is insightful, carefully planned, emotionally satisfying, and true to both the letter and the spirit of Beethoven’s compositional process. These are the Beethoven violin-and-piano sonatas as the composer intended them to be heard, as they deserve to be heard, and as they can now – both “at last” and “again” – be heard to their best advantage and greatest level of communicative expressivity.

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