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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Beethoven’s Testaments of 1802
Sonata No. 8 for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 30 No. 3 [18:39]
Sonata No. 9 for Violin and Piano in A major, Op. 47 “Kreutzer” [40:51]
Ragnhild Hemsing (violin), Tor Espen Aspaas (piano)
rec. April and November 2019, Sofienberg Church, Norway
Reviewed in SACD stereo
2L RECORDS 2L160SACD [59:29]

The turning point for Beethoven in 1802 is summed up in the booklet notes for this release as “the year of crisis in the course of which Beethoven the artist commits Beethoven the man to fate.” Normal life was no longer an option, the deafness first noticed in 1796 was encroaching, and his famous Heiligenstadt Testament is dated October 6th 1802. These two sonatas therefore stand as a testament to what Beethoven was able to achieve despite his circumstances.

The Sonata No. 8 Op. 30 No. 3 from April of that year is, by contrast to these dark moods, filled with exuberance in its opening Allegro assai and final Allegro vivace. There is a sense of yearning in the second movement, with a lyrical theme that expands into the lightness of variations as the music progresses. The “Kreutzer” sonata is so-called due to Beethoven’s dedication of the work to the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, though it was never played by him. As a sonata it “takes its iconic place in the duet repertoire as the epitome of what a violin sonata should be… its form and instrumental technique challenging the limits of what a sonata is.”

These performances are presented in outstanding sound, the piano a full and present equal partner to the violin, both of which are heard in superb detail but also set in the now familiar Sofienberg Church acoustic, which allows the music plenty of air. Raghild Hemsing sounds terrifically committed, digging deep where Beethoven demands, taking risks with the tone to deliver those extremes of expression, but also perfectly nuanced and delicate in contrasts that certainly heighten the drama of the “Kreutzer” sonata.

Comparisons are inevitable in these oft-recorded works. My usual reference is that from Decca with Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy, a version that has the edge on the also very fine but less well recorded and more musically abstract Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim on EMI/Warner Classics (review). Timings for each movement are not too dissimilar between these versions, though there is an extra three minutes added to the first movement of the “Kreutzer” sonata with Hemsing and Aspass’ more spacious approach to certain passages. In this regard they are however not really controversial. The main difference with this new recording is that you get the feeling these musicians are performing ‘with a mission’, taking the “Testaments of 1802” theme head on and ensuring that we hear Beethoven the artist both in turmoil, and emphatic about “seizing fate by the throat”. This is not to say that they can’t be playful, as is evidenced in their wit and delicacy in the variations of the second movement of the “Kreutzer” sonata. Perlman and Ashkenazy are no slouches in this regard either, but Perlman’s lighter tone and more forward place in the recorded balance contributes to a more chamber-music feel in the outer movements, where Hemsing and Aspass go for something more orchestral in impact when all of the stops are pulled out. Which you prefer will be down to taste, but I was very much able to revel in these musicians’ forward-looking approach. You can turn up the volume on this recording, enjoy the narrative cohesion of each movement, and really get the feeling that you are both hearing these pieces for the first time and are in the room with the musicians, such is the quality of the recording.

Dominy Clements

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