Ludwig van EETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 12/3 (1798) [17:56]
Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major Kreutzer, Op. 47 (1802/3) [36:25]
Viktoria Mullova (baroque violin); Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
rec. 14-16 December 2009, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales. DDD
ONYX 4050 [54:34]

Viktoria Mullova has teamed up with fortepiano specialist Kristian Bezuidenhout in these two sonatas. Continuing her passion for period instruments Mullova has elected to play her 1750 Guadagnini violin fitted with thick gut strings together with what is described as a ‘lighter transitional bow’. Her partner has chosen a Viennese fortepiano constructed by Anton Walter and Son dating from 1822. Not since watching the ‘classic’ 1969 TV documentary of Schubert's Trout Quintet performed by Barenboim, Zukerman, Perlman, Du Pré and Mehta have I enjoyed a performance containing as much sheer joy.

For around a decade now Mullova has immersed herself in authentic performance practice working with several outstanding specialists at the cutting-edge of the period instrument scene. I still greatly admire her early period instrument release the splendid 2001 London recording of Mozart’s Violin Concertos 1, 3 and 4 on Philips 470 292-2. There she can be heard directing the period instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from her ‘Jules Falk’ Stradivarius (1723) fitted with gut strings and using a period bow.

Finest of all has been Mullova’s life-enhancing recording of Bach’s 6 Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006, using a 1750 Guadagnini with gut strings and period bow, on Onyx Classics 4040. I made this disc my MusicWeb International 2009 ‘Record of the Year’. I have every confidence that this recording will become one of the great 'classics'.

Over a fifteen year period Beethoven wrote ten violin sonatas. Clearly the ‘Kreutzer’ is the most celebrated, however, the other nine are impressive examples. The disc opens with the splendid Violin Sonata No. 3. It bears a dedication to Beethoven’s former teacher Antonio Salieri. This score, the last of the set of three opus 12 sonatas that Beethoven composed in 1797/8, is given an perceptive interpretation that brims with freshness and vivacity.

Beloved by audiences and violinists alike the larger-scale Kreutzer was originally dedicated to the Polish-African violinist George Bridgetower (1780–1860) who premiered the work with Beethoven at the piano. Following a quarrel Beethoven re-dedicated the sonata to the virtuoso Rodolphe Kreutzer, a professor at the Paris Conservatory, who it seems never played it in public. Soon gaining an esteemed reputation the renowned author Leo Tolstoy even named a novella after the Kreutzer Sonata. In turn Tolstoy’s narrative inspired Janácek to compose a string quartet entitled the ‘Kreutzer Sonata’.

For me the core of the Kreutzer is the tension-filled opening movement which develops an almost febrile intensity with Mullova delivering virtuosity of Paganinian proportions. Providing a marked contrast to the outer movements the impressive Andante con variazioni sports a gracious theme and a polished set of variations. In these assured hands the Finale: Presto - an exuberant tarantella - just gallops with tremendous energy.

This incisive partnership play with brio and spontaneity giving the impression of a live performance. The artists endeavours are complemented by close and detailed sound.

For those who want all ten of the Beethoven violin sonatas the sets (all played on modern strung instruments) that take centre-stage are from Schneiderhan/Kempff on DG, Perlman/Ashkenazy on Decca, Kremer/Argerich on DG, Dumay/Pires on DG. Mutter/Orkis on DG and Oistrakh/Oborin on Philips. In addition there is a lesser-known complete set from 2006 that I greatly admire from Corey Cerovsek and Paavali Jumppanen on the Claves label; it’s well worth investigating. More recently there was a splendid 2009 release from Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov on Harmonia Mundi - a set that is gaining many plaudits.

This is by no means the only occasion that these sonatas have been recorded on period instruments but this stunning Onyx release is the first that can compete with the very best of the established accounts.

Michael Cookson