Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano
CD 1: Op. 12 (Sonatas 1, 2, 3)
CD 2: Op. 23, Op.24 (Sonatas 4, 5)
CD 3: Op. 30 (Sonatas 6, 7, 8)
CD 4: Op. 47, Op 96 (Sonatas 9, 10)
Robert Mann (violin); Stephen Hough (piano)
rec. live, Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, New York City, 11 December 1985 (Sonatas 1, 2, 5, 7), 5 February 1986 (Sonatas 4, 8, 9), 26 February 1986 (Sonatas 3, 6, 10)
NIMBUS NI 2553/56 [4 CDs: 55:51 + 44:13 + 63:28 + 61:58]

Beyond its modest price tag and comprehensive coverage of the repertoire it is difficult to think of anything much to recommend this release. It is one of a series of reissues by Nimbus from the back catalogue of the American label MusicMasters. While many of these have been real finds - Iím thinking of the Vladimir Feltsman Bach in particular - this one probably deserved its previous obscurity.

Robert Mann and Stephen Hough make an unlikely pairing. Some forty years separate them in age, and the recordings, which were made in New York in the mid-1980s, capture performances by a well-established violinist sharing a platform with a still-rising young accompanist. Hough had made a well-received American recital debut in 1984, and this Beethoven project was presumably one of the first fruits of that new-found stateside celebrity. Robert Mann, in contrast, was by then a senior figure on the New York classical music scene and leader of the prestigious Juilliard String Quartet, a position he had held since the group was founded in 1946. He was also well known as a conductor and composer.

None of this explains his lacklustre performances here. He clearly has a deep affinity with Beethovenís musical world, and stylistically it is difficult to fault his readings. But his intonation is approximate at best, especially in the higher register, runs and scale passages are often congested, and his bowing in the louder passages is often coarse and inelegant. Scratchy down-bow attacks begin many of these phrases, with the bottom of the bow really driven into the lower strings.

Stephen Hough gives very different performances. His playing is secure for the most part: he has a few unsteady moments in the first movement of the 6th Sonata. The affable grace of his later concerto performances is already evident. But itís a foursquare performance from the piano, rarely filling out Beethovenís heroic textures. Itís accompaniment and nothing more.

The sound quality does the performers no favours either. The Sonatas were recorded live at three concerts in December 1985 and February 1986, but listening to the results you could easily think they were at least ten years older. The worst is the first recital, in which Sonatas 1, 2, 5 and 7 were performed. The sound is shallow and muddy with occasional low level interference, hisses and crackles whose provenance is a mystery given that these are digital recordings. Perhaps they are the result of attempts to muffle audience noise during the re-master. The sound improves in the other recitals, but even then never excels.

The last disc is the best of the bunch, with performances of the 9th (Kreutzer) and 10th Sonatas that do have something to say about the music. The more involved movement structures of Beethovenís later Sonatas give both performers something substantial to interpret. This is where Mannís sense of musical drama becomes an asset, and he occasionally inspires some truly Beethovenian muscularity from Hough. Problems remain though: those scratchy violin attacks in the 9th Sonata and some suspect intonation in the higher register passages of the 10thís Scherzo.

Brief, and I mean brief, excerpts of applause are included on the recording at the end of each Sonata. They suggest that the live experience of each of these concerts was more satisfying than the recorded document. Perhaps the recordings are old enough, and the performers sufficiently esteemed, that the discs could have historical value. If you are interested in what Robert Mann got up to in the 1980s when not leading his famous quartet, or in the roots of Stephen Houghís later greatness, then seek this out. Otherwise avoid.

Gavin Dixon

Probably deserves obscurity ... see Full Review