Beethoven Violin Sonatas 4, 5, 8 – James Ehnes/Andrew Armstrong – Onyx

by | Aug 2, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 4 in a Minor, Op. 23; Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major “Spring”; Violin Sonata No. 8 in G Major, Op. 30, No. 3; 6 German Dances, WoO 42; Rondo in G Major, WoO 41 – James Ehnes, violin/ Andrew Armstrong, piano – Onyx 4208, 71:01 (2/10/20) [Distrib. by PIAS] ****:

We often forget that Beethoven studied the violin with Wenzel Krumpholz, who had served with the Vienna Court Orchestra, and Beethoven served as a violist in a court ensemble. In 1794, Beethoven noted having met thrice weekly with Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the musician who championed the violin works, particularly through the medium of his string quartet.  By 1801, the time of the publication – by the firm of Tarquinio Mollo – of the pair of sonatas in A Minor and F Major, Beethoven had a through knowledge of the instrument, its capabilities and demands.  Because of issues involved in binding the scores of the diptych sonatas in one volume, they appeared separately, both dedicated to a wealthy industrialist and patron, Count Moritz von Fries.

Recorded 13-15 March 2019, these sessions reveal the fluency and flair Ehnes and Armstrong possess, especially in the A Minor Sonata, which constantly challenges their sense of dramatic timing and passionate repartee.  Rare in Beethoven are minor-key violin sonatas – only the C Minor, Op. 30, No. 2 shares the mode – and the A Minor appears late, in the Op. 132 String Quartet. The opening Presto energetically urges an unyielding 6/8 that that relents with a graceful tune in F Major. An octave leap introduces new material, whose last measures contain an outburst of some vehemence. A third tune returns to the home key. To keep these disparate emotions fluid and in harmony defines the task well met.

The second movement, Andante scherzoso piu Allegretto in A Major, poses another kind of anomaly: it neither conforms to a slow movement nor a real scherzo, but a hybrid in three themes. In sonata-form, the music moves to a clear fugato in a light vein, but soon the development includes some syncopated sforzando markings. The last movement, Allegro molto, has our duo in a tempo and urgency similar to that of the first movement, the theme introduced by Armstrong and often reprised, while various episodes – one in F Major – offer contrast and high-flown drama. 

The companion piece, the so-called Spring Sonata, proffers a relaxed, lyrical work whose immediacy of appeal has made it a universal medium for violinists. Beauty and transparency of texture combine, although the force of Armstrong’s pungent triplets and rising scales may feel aggressive to some tastes. The music bounces between two notes, A and G-sharp, for a series of motivic episodes. Still, radiant and muscular, the performance has a distinct charisma, less charming but more emotionally pliant than has been its wont. The Adagio molto espressivo second movement achieves a placid melodiousness close to the spirit of Schubert. Armstrong introduces the theme, and Ehnes’ lulling violin repeats and proceeds to ornament the lyric. The ensuing Scherzo: Allegro molto marks Beethoven’s first application of a fourth movement in a violin sonata. A clever piece of syncopation, its brief moment has the violin’s imitating the keyboard one beat away. The Trio section employs frenetic scalar passagework. The Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo possesses a galant poise, offering vigor in the triplets in the counter theme. Ehnes has a bit of virtuosity in the addition of pizzicato double stops and syncopated triplets over Armstrong’s martial application of the tune. A series of variants proceeds to inflect the martial air with an element of canny grace. Near the coda a new melody appears, delivered with refined eloquence.

Portrait Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven,
by Hornemann

The 1802 Sonata in G Major first came to my attention through the splendid collaboration between Nathan Milstein and Artur Balsam. The robust Allegro assai opening features a barrage of 16th notes, a Mannheim rocket figure of note, and quirky dynamic shadings. The exposition closes with trills; in fact, the indulgence in lively ornamentation dubbed the work the “Champagne Sonata.”  Ehnes and Armstrong make full use of strident and briskly jabbing attacks that ensure a mesmeric hustle to the performance. 

Beethoven marks his central movement Tempo di Menuetto, a dance form that he embraced long and late, even incorporating it into his Eighth Symphony. An extended dialogue in E-flat Major, the music bears a graceful nobility close to the music of Gluck, especially in the grazioso marking. What first appears as violin accompaniment develops a stature of its own. At the coda, the melodic material quite dissipates into the aether. The last movement, Allegro Vivace, presents a tour de force, a moto perpetuo romp for Ehnes and Armstrong to strut their individual virtuosity. The music projects a rustic wit, rife with canon passages and bagpipe effects, a treat for the mind as well as the ear. Suddenly, the music comes to a halt, only to resume in a mock-march in a false key of E-flat Major to make the coda in G even more piquant. 

In the middle of this triptych of sonatas Ehnes and Armstrong interject two youthful violin works, c. 1792-1796, by Beethoven, of which the German Dances quite steal the show! Conceived as vehicles for gifted amateurs, the Six Dances fly off the page in easy sequence, thoroughly charming. The little Rondo for Eleonore von Breuning proves evanescent, with a little transition into G Minor that tells us something of the young composer’s burgeoning imagination.

—Gary Lemco    

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