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Beethoven: 10 Violin Sonatas - van Keulen / Minnaar

Beethoven: 10 Violin Sonatas - van Keulen / Minnaar

Challenge Classics  CC 72650 (4 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber


Beethoven: Violin Sonatas

Isabelle van Keulen, violin
Hannes Minnaar, piano


‘Sonata per il Pianoforte ed un Violino obligato, scritta in uno stile molto concertante, quasi come d’un concerto. Composta e dedicata al suo amico R. Kreutzer, (....) per L. van Beethoven. Opera 47.’

This was the title given to the first edition of Sonata No. 9, known as the Kreutzer Sonata. It shows Beethoven’s thinking on the piano-violin combination: the piano came first, which obviously had something to do with the virtuoso skills of the master himself on the pianoforte. Not only was Sonata Op. 47 a turning point in Beethoven’s work for piano and violin, but never before had anything been written in this manner for piano and one other instrument. Whereas the keyboard instrument had always been secondary, an accompaniment, the Kreutzer Sonata put an end to this once and for all, The first eight violin sonatas, Op. 12/1-3, Op. 23 and 24, and Op. 30-1/3, were composed between 1798 and 1802, in Beethoven’s first creative period; after the Sonata Op. 47 in 1803, at the beginning of the middle period, he set the genre aside until 1812, the year in which the hushed, reflective tenth sonata, Op. 96 in G major, was written. All in all, the ten Sonatas for piano and violin are an impassioned exposition of Beethoven’s great inventiveness, and all aspects of his composing genius are present in them: the exuberance, the humour, the love for variations (four of the ten sonatas have a movement consisting of a theme with variations and four others have a rondo as the final movement, consisting of a theme and variations), the tenderness and the mystery, in short: an inexhaustible source of inspiration!

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - November 13, 2014

Hard on the heels of the SACD version of the well-received set from Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov, and just ahead of a ditto set in the making by Thomas Albertus Irnberger and Michael Korstick, we have here another Isabelle with a complete set of Beethoven violin sonatas. If you like them pure, straightforward, yet intimate and poetic, this may be your best current choice on SACD. For a more polished version, with the violin in the limelight, you should look elsewhere and beyond SACD.

Both partners are a whole generation apart: Isabelle van Keulen is a confirmed talent, whose career started winning the Eurovision Young Musician of the Year Contest in 1984; Hannes Minnaar is a new Dutch piano phenomenon and 2010 laureate of the prestigious Concours Reine Elisabeth. Isabelle van Keulen plays these sonatas with zest and hardly any vibrato; Minnaar participates with youthful élan and competence.

Why van Keulen preferred to record them with a concert grand instead of her regular partner, Ronald Brautigam on the pianoforte, I don’t know, it would have been a welcome combination. This said the present recording has ample plusses.

Although reviewing a full set is by no means easy (and hazardous); playing and recording them is an immense task, requiring extensive study, finding clues on how to interpret the different styles these 10 sonatas encompass. We may know something about Beethoven’s playing style in general, but as far as his violin sonatas are concerned we have limited information available. He only had a handful of pupils and did not leave clear instructions. “Performers nowadays have the freedom to make their own interpretations based on a few kinds of resources: the reviews of Beethoven’s contemporaries; the compositional markings in the scores; and the interpretive traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation” (Cheng-Yin Lin, PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, August 2013).

My comments relate mostly to both name sonatas: nos. 5 ‘Spring’ and 9 ‘Kreuzer’, being the best known and most commonly played and recorded, yet each other’s opposite. I compared them with the excellent account of Perlman/Ashkenazy (RBCD Decca, 1981, reissued on SACD by Universal Japan).

In a not very positive review of van Keulen’s performance of the ‘Frühlings-Sonate’ in Wigmore Hall, The Independent was of the opinion that ‘it felt like a piano sonata with violin accompaniment’. But isn’t that just what it was meant to be by Beethoven? Being a pianist himself he logically puts this instrument up front. Original scores refer invariably to sonatas for pianoforte and violin and the title given to the first edition of Sonata No. 9 says it all: ‘Sonata per il Pianoforte ed un Violino obligato …’.

This brings me to the heart of the matter. Although both van Keulen and Minnaar are soloists in their own right, none of them tries to play the upper hand. Van Keulen, not out of false modesty, but rather out of musical maturity and purposeful intimacy; Minnaar, showing respect towards an older colleague, taking the lead when asked for, leaving room for his partner whenever possible. The result is nonetheless a restrained dominance of the concert grand over the mostly poetic violin, but in perfect harmony and thoughtful interplay.

But that is not all: Whereas Perlman/Ashkenazy play ‘sure of themselves’, giving the listener a finished product and as such ‘his money’s worth’; van Keulen/Minnaar take you on a voyage of discovery into ‘the tenderness and the mystery’ of these sonatas, thus allowing the listener to become a party to their mutual quest for honesty. One is drawn into the music and moved by its development. Not the ‘stars’ but the unescapable involvement reigns here. This is what sets this set apart from the rest.

The ‘Spring’ sonata is almost timid in its approach; van Keulen puts you, with a kind of unspoiled innocence, into a lovely, poetical, musical world with the piano creating a framework of apparent simplicity. No glitz, no glamour; both are on equal footing. Strangely enough this ‘sunny’ sonata was written during a difficult period in Beethoven’s life. (Its sister sonata, no 4, takes a darker and much more somber view of life). In the final movement piano and violin become more assertive, but stick to a positive mood. Perlman/Ashkenazy underline the beauty, especially in the second movement, but fail to address the underlying feelings of happiness in the final movement. Virtuosity comes first.

In the ‘Kreuzer’ sonata the complex structure, emerging after a slow, but bold introduction is rendered in an almost overwhelming persuasiveness, like only the most accomplished players can bring about. Contradicting accents and markings are negotiated with apparent ease. Nothing timid here. In van Keulen’s own words: Beethoven is both anger and tenderness. These aspects clearly come to the fore. The spirited performance sounds like van Keulen (or both) feel how it should be: ill-tempered and unadulterated, with alternating moments of tender passion; far away from the polished (and somewhat mannered but technically perfect) Anne-Sophie Mutter/Lambert Orkis or, for that matter, Perlman/Ashkenazy, with their accomplished and youthful perfection.

The dazzling final movement, where soul is more important than perfection, brings this undoubtedly most spiritually ‘invasive’ sonata, to a thrilling close.

I would certainly recommend this set, especially for what it is: shedding a different light on, and giving another insight in Ludwig van Beethoven’s oeuvre for piano and violin. The Challenge/Serendipitous recording is first rate.

Copyright © 2014 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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