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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonatas for Violin and Piano
No. 1 in D major, Op. 12, No. 1 (1799) [20:22]
No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, No. 2 (1799) [16:13]
No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 12, No. 3 (1799) [18:59]
No. 5 in F major, Op. 24 Spring (1801) [24:37]
No. 4 in A minor, Op. 23 (1801) [22:10]
No. 8 in G major, Op. 30, No. 3 (1802) [17:55]
No. 9 in A major, Op. 47 Kreutzer Sonata (1803) [38:13]
No. 6 in A major, Op. 30, No. 1 (1802) [24:21]
No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2 (1802) [24:16]
No. 10 in G major, Op. 96 (1812) [29:03]
Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
Enrico Pace (piano)
rec. The Athens Concert Hall, Athens, Greece, 16-18 September 2011 (4, 7, 10), 8-11 February 2012 (2, 3, 6), 6-12 April 2012 (1, 5, 8, 9)
DECCA 478 3523 [3 CDs: 80:12 + 78:20 + 77:39]

I received this set with a little trepidation. The cover of the foldout box has a photo of the violinist, Leonidas Kavakos, but none of the pianist, Enrico Pace. Although Pace’s name appears on the cover, it is in much smaller type than that of the violinist. This recalls the bad old days when the pianist took a back seat - as an accompanist - to the violinist in sonata repertoire. I’m thinking here primarily of Jascha Heifetz and his pianist, Brooks Smith, or even Isaac Stern and his pianist Alexander Zakin. Beethoven intended these sonatas to be for piano and violin in that order. Such illustrious duos as Francescatti/Casadesus, Perlman/Ashkenazy and Kremer/Argerich have contributed legendary accounts of these works. What then to expect from Kavakos and Pace? I need not have worried. Based on their interpretations here, Pace indeed deserves billing equal to that of Kavakos. As a duo they are at the level of their illustrious forebears. The recorded balance also is well judged with neither piano nor violin dominating. 

In general, Kavakos and Pace approach these sonatas as Classical works and present them from a patrician point of view. All but the last are from the earlier part of Beethoven’s career and they succeed best when they are approached this way. You won’t find a hint of portamento or exaggerated dynamics in these interpretations, and Kavakos’s use of vibrato is not overdone. This is not to say that there is a lack of dynamism; there is, especially in the Op. 30 works and the famous Kreutzer Sonata. For the most part, though, these are very well prepared accounts that repay repeated listening and leave one with a great deal of satisfaction. Kavakos plays a 1724 Stradivarius, the Abergavenny, and his tone, which is bright, diamond clear, but not lacking in warmth, seems ideal for these works. His intonation also is impeccable. There is no pretension to nineteenth-century Romanticism in these performances, yet they can be as exciting as the best of those mentioned above. For example, in the great C minor sonata, Op. 30, Kavakos and Pace are nearly as involved as in my favorite Kremer/Argerich performance. One would expect these artists to excel in the Op. 12 sonatas and indeed they do. Their account of the lyrical Spring Sonata is simply beautiful, at times almost Schubertian (first movement) and at others, Mozartean (second and fourth movements). It contrasts well with the darker, introverted A minor. However, if I had to choose any of these sonata interpretations above the others, it would be the Op. 30 set. I commented on the C minor (No. 7), but the A major (No. 6) and G major (No. 8) are if anything even better. The duo brings out the gentleness of the A major, but also rises to the dramatic moments as they occur. The G major receives a dynamic performance with plenty of high spirits and no little humor. As that movement ends you want to shout, “bravo!” or at least wish there had been an audience there to applaud.
For the most famous of these sonatas, the Kreutzer, there is a great deal of recorded competition, including Perlman/Ashkenazy, Ibragimova/Tiberghien and my favorite, Kremer/Argerich. Kavakos/Pace hold their own. Their reading is well considered, if not as exciting as Kremer/Argerich. Yet they are more eloquent in the lyrical portions of the work - for example, the second movement Andante con variazioni. When it comes to the last sonata, in G, Op. 96 we are in the beginning of Beethoven’s late period. It has a Mozartean quality, which is emphasized in the Ibragimova/Tiberghien recording, but there is more to the work than lightness and simplicity. Kavakos/Pace capture the warmth and depth of the piece to perfection. Next to them Kremer/Argerich can be almost vehement at times and overly dramatic. I wouldn’t want to be without their Kreutzer, but as far as Op. 96 is concerned, Kavakos/Pace may just be my new favorite. 

Regarding the presentation, Misha Donat contributes detailed notes on the sonatas in the booklet but there is no mention of the artists. Kavakos himself contributes a brief note comparing Beethoven’s music to the Parthenon. It would have been helpful, though, to include biographical sketches of the performers, especially Pace who is not all that well known. Kavakos has made quite a reputation for himself in recent years. He performed the Bartók Second Concerto in Washington, DC this year with the Concertgebouw, a concert I did not have the fortune of attending. Both he and Pace were born in 1967, Kavakos in Athens and Pace in Rimini, Italy. Pace’s name was unfamiliar to me before these recordings, but like Kavakos, he has had an international career. Both artists seem very well suited to this repertoire and they strongly deserve your attention. Indeed, theirs may become my reference edition of these particular sonatas.
Leslie Wright