Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major Op.30, No. 1 [24:09]
Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major Op.24 'Spring' [26:15]
Violin Sonata No. 10 in G major Op.96 [28:33]
Sayaka Shoji (violin)
Gianluca Cascioli (piano)
rec. 2011/14, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg

Last year I reviewed a stunning recording of Prokofiev’s two violin concertos played by the young Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji. Following hot on the heels of that success comes this fourth volume, the last in the series of her Beethoven Violin Sonata cycle with the Italian pianist Gianluca Cascioli. This volume reflects some careful and intelligent planning, offering three sonatas, each being of a pastoral or bucolic persuasion. The common threads linking these works are joy, optimism and hope.

Sayaka Shoji was born in Japan, but spent her childhood in Siena, Italy. She studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. Her teachers included Shlomo Mintz and Uto Ughi. In 1999, she became the first Japanese and youngest winner of the Paganini Competition in Genoa. Gianluca Cascioli won the Umberto Micheli International Piano Competition in 1994. His prize included a record contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and he recorded three CDs for them in his late teens.

The relaxed and spacious approach to Op. 30, No. 1, where the players bask in the sonata’s heartfelt lyricism, recalls Oistrakh’s performances of this work. For me, it is a sonata he excelled in. Shoji and Cascioli emphasize the elegance, poise and warmth of the score, in contrast to the drama, passion, underlying tension and power of the C minor Sonata, the second of the Op. 30 set. The first movement is of a sunny, carefree disposition. In the slow movement, one of Beethoven’s most haunting, the pianist is at his most sensitive, accompanying the violin melody with a graceful simplicity, matching phrase for phrase. In the finale, each instrument is given its moment in the sun, with each variation expertly characterized.

The ‘Spring’ Sonata must surely be the most popular of the cycle and, throughout, the distinguished duo express the hope and joy that the season brings. They have an instinctive feel for the music and deliver a performance of utter conviction. Shoji’s rich, velvety and full-bodied tone is a positive asset; she plays the 1729 ‘Recamier’ Stradivarius (on loan from Ryuzo Ueno, Honorary Chairman of Ueno Fine Chemicals Ltd).

The Violin Sonata No.10 in G major Op.96, in common with Op. 24, is pastoral in character and, like the other two sonatas, is a product of the lyrical side of Beethoven’s musical personality. Menuhin, in a conversation with Glenn Gould, prior to a performance of this work, makes the pertinent remark that his teacher Georges Enescu referred to the Op 96 as ‘the real spring, the venerable and the pure spring’. Shoji and Cascioli truly capture the spirit of the work in a well-managed performance, which brings the music to life with an intoxicating blend of eloquence and sublime tenderness. Again, Beethoven hands us one of his most halcyon and serene slow movements, and Cascioli’s exquisitely phrased introduction is a foretaste of the raptly intense music which is to follow.

These are two artists at the top of their game. Having listened to this release several times, there’s no feeling that you are treading old, well-worn territory. The duo offer a fresh perspective, with everything sounding spontaneous and newly-composed. The favourable acoustic of Friedrich-Ebert-Halle is a bonus, and instrumental balance is as it should be. Although liner notes are in Japanese, the booklet contains English track-listings and timings in addition to informative portraits of the artists. I regret never having heard the other volumes in the series.

Stephen Greenbank
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