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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Violin Sonatas
CD 1 [71.12]
Sonata No. 1 in D major Op. 12 No. 1 [19.19]; Sonata No. 2 in A major Op. 12 No. 2 [17.16]; Sonata No. 3 in E flat Op. 12 No. 3 [17.19] (1799); Sonata No. 4 in A minor Op. 23 (1800) [17.15]
CD 2 [71.08]
Sonata No. 5 Spring Op. 24 (1801) [21.32]; Sonata No. 6 Op. 30 No. 1 in A major (1802) [23.17]; Sonata No. 7 in C minor Op. 30 No. 2 (1802) [26.15]
CD 3 [75.26] Sonata No. 8 in G major Op. 30 No. 3 (1802) [18.05]; Sonata No. 9 in A major Op. 47 Kreutzer (1803) [32.53]; Sonata No. 10 in G major Op. 96 (1812)
Uri Pianka (violin); Jonathan Zak (piano)
rec. Israel Museum, Jerusalem, three consecutive Saturdays, November 1983. DDD
ROMÉO 7256/7/8 [217.46] 
Experience Classicsonline

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. 

Their 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. 

The 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. 

Despite 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. 

It’s 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. 

The 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. 

Op. 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. 

The 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. 

I 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. 

So 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. 

For 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. 

Gary Higginson 



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