You could easily overlook this set of recordings almost falling
into the historic category. The recordings were made live in Jerusalem in 1983 by two performers of whom you have probably
never heard. The results are now issued on an obscure label. Uri
Pianka is the now retired concert-master of the Houston Symphony
Orchestra. The pianist Jonathan Zak wrote the somewhat succinct
booklet notes. He is a prolific recording artist.
approach in these live recordings in front of an enthusiastic
audience over three evenings seems to be encapsulated in the
First Sonata of the Op. 12 group. This is played with elegance,
élan and a real feeling for the importance of structure. There
is a sonata-form opening movement, a straightforward (for Beethoven)
Theme and Variations for a middle movement and a Haydnesque
rondo finale. The playing is neat, crisp and highly civilized.
Op. 12 sonatas date from 1799 and are rather more classical
than romantic in style. This aspect is certainly brought out
in the Second Sonata, again a three movement work which ends
with a witty and quite complex Rondo. I had a talented A-level
pupil recently who wanted to perform this work. We worked on
it for some months and the rhythmic intricacies of the first
movement in particular never failed to catch us out. The Third
Sonata in Op. 12 would have been beyond us both even if we had
wanted to a put on a performance. It is not only more demanding
technically but also emotionally. It seems at times to be waving
the 18th Century farewell especially in the depth
and beauty of its slow movement which is so wondrously captured
here. Also its ensemble demands are high. This piece, more than
the other two, demands an equal partnership.
what somewhat chaotic booklet notes suggest it was three years
later that Beethoven wrote the two sonatas Op. 23 not the Op.
30 ones. No. 4 is almost the last of the three movement works,
except for No. 6 and the vast Kreutzer. It begins with
a brusque Presto which makes me think that I have just
walked in on a Finale. The real Finale is a wild Rondo Allegro
here played brilliantly. It brings this much underrated
sonata to a surprising end.
with the Fifth Sonata, the so-called Spring, because,
no doubt, of its sunny first subject, that I start to come adrift
from Pianka and Zak. It depends, I suppose, on whether you regard
this 1802 piece as basically classical or romantic in outlook.
I favour the latter. Its title and overall demeanour lead me
to this view. I find this recording rather matter-of-fact, even
unrefined. It’s interesting that this duo shave no less than
three minutes off my favourite version: that of Perlman and
Ashkenazy recorded in 1973 (Decca Legends 458 618-2). They take
the Rondo Finale at quite a lick. These latter musicians obviously
take a more leisurely, a more Romantic view. What view do you
take? You know mine.
gentle and easy-going Sixth Sonata is the first of the widely
contrasted Op. 30 works. This is again in three movements with,
unusually, the middle movement Adagio being a rondo. The finale
is not the one originally intended. That should have been what
is now the Presto finale of the Kreutzer. The theme and
variations used here is much more suitable to the overall amiable
mood nicely conveyed by Zak and Pianka whose beautiful 1704
Rogerius violin seems most suited to a work like this.
30 no, 2, the Seventh Sonata, is in Beethoven’s most serious
key of C minor. It often denotes drama and passion as here,
in the outer movements anyway, with their ominous and typically
‘knocking’ motifs. The inner movements consist of an elegantly
expressive Adagio in rondo-variation form and a light-weight
scherzo. This work comes off really well in this partnership
but I would have liked even more passion in the finale.
Eighth Sonata Op. 30 no. 3, one of my favourites, occupies a
place in the canon similar to that held by the Eighth Symphony.
In an easy-going G major it acts as light relief between the
powerful C minor sonata and the massive Kreutzer, the
Ninth. The Eighth’s three movements encapsulate a long Menuetto
and Trio marked ‘Grazioso’. It’s very graciously played here
and the brief finale with its opening drone and lively character
is reminiscent of Haydn.
have often wondered if Beethoven intended his Ninth Sonata to
be his last and to make this highly original and dramatic work
stand apart from anything previous. His title page inscribed
“Scritto in uno stilo molto concertante, quasi come d’un concerto”
says it all. A powerful performance is needed. Again I would
turn to Perlman and Ashkenazy as mentioned above. The first
movement needs special flair. Pianka and Zak emphasise the ‘classical’
antecedents of these sonatas. For me they lack the ‘gravitas’
needed in the first movement with its recitativic opening and
for solo violin and first piano entry. True, they are not helped
by the somewhat airless recording which did not seem to be such
a problem in the earlier works. Their approach suits the middle
movement - again a set of variations - where they keep a happy
feeling of forward movement. It is, I feel, too light-footed
for the finale.
to the Tenth Sonata. This four movement work dates from ten
years later by which time much water had gone under the bridge.
This is a much more Romantic and indeed pastoral work than the
Ninth both in melody and harmony. It mostly comes off really
well in this beautifully relaxed performance. The Scherzo is
placed third and could, arguably, be a little more exciting
in terms of attack and tempo. Their overall view of the work
is one of confident happiness.
myself I shall keep and play this disc but will not rid myself
of versions by some of my other favourite performers. Pianka
and Zak form a true partnership and their stylistic approach
is consistently rendered. I can only end by saying that the
set is well worth searching out.