Ibragimova and Tiberghien have already received universally
positive praise for the first two instalments of their Beethoven
sonata cycle, so expectations run high for this third and final
disc. Although I haven't heard the previous two, listening to
this one I can well understand what the fuss was all about,
for this is seriously accomplished Beethoven interpretation.
The players have an extraordinary rapport, yet both put their
individual stamp on the work, essential for any great Beethoven
The three discs each record a single Wigmore Hall recital, hence
the jumping around the chronology of the sonatas. The absence
of any late period works in the cycle makes this a practical
arrangement. It is not like the string quartets, where serious
thought has to be given to which early works to pair with the
late quartets. Instead, the slightly less Titanic Opp. 47 and
96 can each close a concert with appropriate gravitas and without
completely stealing the show.
Ibragimova and Tiberghien are at their best in the earlier sonatas
anyway. The young(ish) Beethoven was working at a time when
the duo sonata was in a state of transition, with the balance
gradually shifting in favour of the melody instrument over the
keyboard. The genius of these performances is in the way that
the players are able to keep that question of balance open.
They are often equal partners, but just as often, one or other
will take the lead, initiating elaborate semiquaver runs or
suddenly dominating the texture with some florid decorative
figure. But everything here is fluid, and none of these power
imbalances lasts for long.
I'm particularly struck by the way that both players are able
to change their volume and timbre instantaneously mid-phrase,
and to change the course of that phrase as a result, a quiet
conclusion, for example, retrospectively taking all the bravura
out of an imposing opening statement.
Ibragimova has a fairly light tone. It is certainly attractive,
and there is plenty of variety too, but if there is anything
to say against this recording it is that the narrowness of that
violin sound may not be to everybody's taste. She has a surprising
ability to create airy, floating textures despite this reedy
sound. In the second movement of Op.30 No.1, for example, the
violin breezes across the piano textures with wonderful delicacy,
but still with that slight edge to the sound.
It works well there, but for me the Kreutzer needs something
else. It needs a sense of weight from the violin that only comes
from a big, round sound. The playfulness that brings the violin
parts of the earlier sonatas to life seems almost to trivialise
the Kreutzer's sterner textures. And Tiberghien holds
back a little too much in some of the louder passages. That
complex power balance between the keyboard and the violin becomes
an outright paradox in the Kreutzer, with the piano line
often looking like a solo part, but forced into the role of
an accompaniment by the equally arresting violin part. There
are a number of places where the violin and piano right hand
ought to be working as equal partners, but what we always hear
is the violin with the piano's figurations subsumed. No matter,
Beethoven asks for the impossible, and this is one legitimate
way to square the circle.
Wigmore Hall Live manage their usual high standard of audio
recording here. I love the way that they are always able to
capture the ambience of the hall's warm acoustic, making it
almost the third player in the mix. All round an impressive
recording, then, not the last word in Beethoven sonatas, but
then how could it be? If anything that is a virtue; the subjectivity
of these readings brings the players themselves, and their own
attitudes to the music, clearly into focus. The interpretations
are coherent and mature, and the teamwork between the players
is what makes the recording something special.