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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No 1 in D major, Op 12 No 1 (1798-1799) [20:33]
Violin Sonata No 10 in G major, Op 96 (1812) [26:20]
Violin Sonata No 5 in F major, Op 24 ‘Spring’ (1800-1801) [23:32]
Lorenzo Gatto (violin)
Julien Libeer (piano)
rec. 2017, Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Studio 1, Hilversum, The Netherlands
ALPHA 407 [70:32]

Alpha’s release is the second instalment in what will eventually constitute a complete Beethoven violin sonata set from these two young Belgians, who have been performing the cycle in concerts with some regularity over the last seven years. They are quoted in the note as suggesting that the sonatas ‘have become the core of our musical lives’. Both are in their early thirties. Gatto studied with Heman Krebbers and Augustin Dumay among others, while Libeer has studied with Dumay’s regular piano partner Maria Joćo Pires, so some similarity with the interpretations of that august combination are not altogether surprising. A delightful Belgian TV documentary about Libeer (Youtube) reveals that he worships at the altar of the immortal Dinu Lipatti, and his playing here is shot through with the clarity and purity of the Rumanian master, an impression that is enhanced by the unusual piano that is used here, explained below.

The sonata Op 12 No 1 was the first of a set of three dedicated to Salieri. Like its siblings its three movement form comprises an Allegro opening and a Rondo finale, though the middle movement is a set of variations which was quietly revolutionary for the close of the eighteenth century as the thematic material of the variations is shared out pretty equally between the two instruments, supporting the oft-made claim regarding Beethoven’s cycle that the piano, is an equal, rather than a subsidiary partner. The very opening of the first movement nicely demonstrates the attractions of the disc as a whole. Gatto’s playing is light on its feet, with an appropriate lilt and swagger and judiciously applied vibrato. Lenner’s piano is beautifully integrated into the sound picture and reinforces the piano’s equal billing. Gatto and Leneer’s account is very ‘lived in’ and natural, presumably on account of their evident familiarity with the music, but at no stage do any of these accounts seem workaday. There is a pleasing clarity to Leneer’s playing while his instrument is a straight strung concert grand produced by Chris Maene (after a commission from no less a personage than Daniel Barenboim). While it has the tang and colour of an older instrument it has the bite, response and clarity of a modern grand. The colours that Leneer draws from it are at their most vivid in the variations of the first sonata. There’s no sense of unnecessary lingering at its outset; in the meantime Gatto’s pure tone and honest musicianship ensures an elegant, thoughtful and balanced account, utterly shorn of histrionics or showmanship. His 1698 Stradivarius (aka the ‘Joachim’) projects a vivid presence throughout this disc. Notwithstanding their remarkable instruments these two young players are here for the Beethoven rather than the self-promotion. While the agreeably Mozartean Rondo is taken at a fair lick, it never seems rushed, nor do the players allow its vivacity to run away with itself.

Nine of Beethoven’s ten sonatas were compressed into a period of five years, and the masterly, honeyed ‘Spring’ sonata’ Op 24 was originally paired with its A minor predecessor (Op 23) in a set of two. Beate Angelika Kraus’ note speculates that the greater commercial viability of the ‘Spring’ sonata was the likely reason for it being published individually as Op 24, and the passage of time supports such a view. If the violin is meant to take the lead in any of the set of ten sonatas, it is surely in this work, but what emerges in this account is real democracy and generosity of spirit from both players. One is made truly aware that this is no ad hoc partnership. The balance projected in the call and response exchanges of the initial Allegro is superbly conveyed by the players and captured by the Alpha engineers. Gatto gently adjusts the blinds to create just the right note of darkness as the theme trips into the minor towards the end of the movement. Again there’s no over-egging the sentiment in the glorious slow movement, which emerges with classical poise and projects measured regret. The ‘Corporal Jones’ slapstick clumsiness of the Scherzo is all the more effective in this understated, almost elegant account, while this Rondo finale’s artless sophiscation is immaculately conveyed.

In relative terms Beethoven’ s final, G major sonata Op 96 is a much later work, although in real time it emerged little more than a decade after the ‘Spring’ sonata. The stylistic advances the composer had made in other forms such as symphonies, quartets and solo piano sonatas can perhaps be detected in this work, albeit more subtly. It was written for the French virtuoso Pierre Rode but as the note implies there is little about the piece per se that could be described as virtuosic. Gatto and Lebeer project its serene, elegant qualities in warmly communicative terms, and capture perfectly what Czerny described as the ‘quiet nobility’ of the opening Allegro Moderato. Gatto’s first entry after the bittersweet piano introduction of the slow movement is hushed and sets the scene for a particularly beautiful and introspective reading. This is some of the most expressive playing on this disc and reinforces the view that Libeer and Gatto are totally inside these great works, finding depths that elude many of their contemporaries. Perhaps other recent recordings more convincingly convey the humour of the scherzo (Inragimova and Tiberghien in their live Wigmore Hall account - WHLIVE 0041 in particular). The final Poco Allegretto, a theme and variations in all but name perhaps best represents the depth of what readers may typically associate with ‘late’ Beethoven, and Gatto and Libeer capture its controlled elegance in a stylish and considered interpretation.

I haven’t heard the first disc in this cycle as yet but this disc so exceeded my expectations that I shall certainly have to follow it up. I mentioned the Ibragimova/ Tiberghien pairing earlier in the review, their exceptional live recordings of all ten sonatas are spread over three discs (WHLIVE 0036 - review; WHLIVE 0041; WHLIVE 0045 - review) and match spontaneity with beauty of sound. My other favourite cycles include Faust and Melnikov on Harmonia Mundi (HMC902025/27) for their insight and originality of approach, and Kavakos and Pace whose Decca recordings (478 3523- review) constitute an underrated set characterised by refinement and spaciousness. This Gatto and Libeer disc occupies similar stylistic and emotional terrain to the recordings of their teachers, Pires and Dumay on DG (471 495-2), another favourite. In fact, I compared the first and last sonatas in both of these recordings and was astonished by the similarity of pacing in each of the seven movements. (The timings for all three sonatas in these recordings are astonishingly similar and evidently demonstrate extraordinary faithfulness to the written score). Some readers will be able to detect differences in phrasing or attack but to my mind the real difference is in the sound. Unusually for the label the DG recording sounds a bit odd - the separation of the instruments through the two speakers sounds oddly artificial to my ears whereas the Alpha engineers seem to have achieved an almost perfect, natural balance. On that account alone I wholeheartedly commend these lovely, warm performances to lovers of these mercurial masterpieces. Frankly on this evidence Gatto and Libeer can hold their heads high in the face of any of this competition.

Richard Hanlon



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