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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonatas for Piano and Violin:
No 5 in F major, Op 24 (1800-01) ('Spring Sonata')
No 6 in A major, Op 30 No 1 (1801-02)
No 7 in C minor, Op 30 No 2 (1801-02)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Martin Helmchen (piano)
rec. February 2020, Robert-Schumann Saal, Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, Germany
Reviewed as download of the 24-bit / 96 kHz surround (five-channel) PCM file from
BIS-2527 SACD [68:32]

We seem to have missed the first volume of this new series of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas here at MWI. I’ve heard it via a personal download and was impressed by it, and am making amends by covering this second volume. Many of the observations I’ll be making here also apply to that first volume. These are extremely vital performances, characterized by brio-infused allegros and flowing adagios which still capture the depth and breadth of Beethoven’s writing.

Although Zimmermann doesn’t necessarily receive the publicity or get the prominence of some of the other big-name violinists before the public, I’ve been a fan of his playing for years (not least because he made his DVD of the Bach Violin and Keyboard Sonatas with a modern piano, rather than with a harpsichord or fortepiano!). Even aside from his aesthetic choices like this, Zimmermann inevitably performs at the highest technical level — and even though he’s not a showy player, I don’t know of a dull or sub-par recording from him.

The relationship of both performers on this recording with their instruments is interesting in itself. For a long time, Zimmermann was associated with the Stradivarius violin known as the Lady Inchiquin, an instrument used by Fritz Kreisler. However, from 2016 to early 2017, he played another Strad, the Général Dupont, once owned by Arthur Grumiaux. But he evidently preferred the Lady Inchiquin; he regained access to that instrument early that same year, and has been playing it ever since. It’s a wonderful sounding instrument, especially as heard in the spacious, sympathetic acoustic of the Robert Schumann Hall in Düsseldorf.

The piano which Martin Helmchen uses here is perhaps even more interesting: he plays a new straight-strung concert grand (284 cm — 9 feet, 3 inches) from Belgian piano maker Chris Maene, perhaps better known for his reproductions of historical instruments. The piano on this recording is a modern instrument and hosts a number of innovations, the most notable of which is the return to straight stringing, where the strings are positioned at exactly the same height above the soundboard, without crossing each other at different heights in the way made famous by Steinway’s cross-strung instruments starting in 1859. Some listeners claim that cross-strung pianos have a less distinctive, more homogenized sound, with fewer differences among the registers. Maene has returned to the straight stringing characteristic of an earlier generation of pianos — but with modern technology. In addition, Maene points to other innovations, such as his two-part soundboard (to give the upper register more power), the winding of the bass notes with brass, rather than with copper, and the inclusion of 90 keys, rather than the usual 88. There are a few well known pianists who have come forward to endorse the sound and feel of these Chris Maene pianos, including Emanuel Ax, Frank Braley, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. (By coincidence, this is the second review in the last few days of a recording using the Maene piano. Two of them, in fact, on an album of Brahms’ music for two pianos on B Records LBM032; look out for the review by David McDade. [BW])

So how does it all sound? In a word, magnificent! The balance is such that the violin never dominates when it shouldn’t (as in some of the notorious Heifetz/Bay recordings), and yet the bass register of the piano is so well controlled that that instrument never overpowers the violin. The tonal characteristics of both instruments are well suited to these works, and their tonal beauty never endangers the clarity of the articulation. As for the piano registers, I have to say that I don’t really want to hear a lot of difference among them, and I actually prefer a fair amount of homogeneity in a piano’s sound. And despite the piano maker’s emphasis on the sharply defined contrasts among registers, I can report that these differences are well within my own limits of acceptability. In fact, I suspect that some listeners, especially those who haven’t read the CD booklet (or this review!) may not even notice the greater differentiation among the piano registers — you have to be listening for it!

Among other recent recordings of these works, I was smitten with the Wigmore Hall performances by Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien (Nos 1, 4, 7 and 8 WHLIVE0036: Bargain of the Month - review; 2, 5 and 10 WHLIVE0041; 3, 6 and 9 WHLIVE0045 – review), who favor similarly forward-moving approaches to the works as Zimmermann and Helmchen. However, comparing the two recordings movement-by-movement reveals that Zimmermann and Helmchen are sometimes less inclined to 'editorialize' in their interpretations. For instance, in the Scherzo of the C minor Sonata (Beethoven at his most charming), Tiberghien introduces just a bit of unmarked rubato in the initial theme, and, although at first it didn’t bother me too much, I’ve found his rubato to be increasingly annoying as I’ve lived with this performance over the last couple of years. I suspect that the more straight-ahead approach of Zimmermann and Helmchen will wear better over time. On the other hand, the Zimmermann/Helmchen duo’s tempo for this movement is very much a sprint, and I’m not sure that all listeners will like it quite so fast.

In the Spring Sonata, the allegro movements are again very rapid, even the ma non troppo finale. But here, both players’ playing is so brilliant that even listeners who ordinarily like a more gemütlich approach might be won over. In fact, in both volumes of these sonatas I’ve heard so far, Helmchen’s vivid playing in particular has emerged as a gratifying surprise to me. He’s always been more than proficient (as on his Pentatone recordings, some with violinist Julia Fischer), but I’ve sometimes felt that a certain carefulness would creep into his playing every so often. However, in these recordings with Zimmermann, he really lets his fingers fly, with no cost to the clarity and expression. I suspect that this more pronounced tendency to throw caution to the winds may pay some additional dividends when this team gets to the Kreutzer Sonata!

In the A major Sonata, Op 30 No 1, Zimmermann and Helmchen capture the smaller scale of the work delectably and without undue haste. A work like this one shows once again how charming Beethoven’s earlier music could be, before he was beaten down by his deafness and by life in general. This same charm becomes increasingly rare in the composer’s middle and late works, even though other virtues more than compensate in the music from the later periods.

Returning to the C minor Sonata, Op 30 No 2, I’ll note again how brilliantly the performers play opening Allegro movement — scintillating really. Some writers see this work as heroic in style, but Zimmermann and Helmchen convey the work’s heroism while avoiding grandiosity. And then there’s that already-mentioned Scherzo, where the tempo is faster than all but about three or four other recorded performances I could find. (I don’t have the recent Bärenreiter edition of these sonatas, which came out in August of last year. Although I currently have the Czerny volume which suggests metronome marks based on Czerny’s own recollections of hearing Beethoven play, this Bärenreiter edition reportedly has an in-depth discussion of the metronome markings for these works, based on a greater number of sources. I expect to acquire this Bärenreiter publication before volume three of the new BIS series appears and perhaps will be able to provide a fuller discussion of tempo and metronome marks here in a subsequent review.)

There are, of course, many fine recordings of these works on record, especially of the Spring Sonata, so, as much as I’ve enjoyed this new recording, I’ll always want to hear some older favorites too, such as classics like Szeryng/Rubinstein (in the Spring, Sony 88765452842, download only), Szeryng/Haebler (4208622, Presto CD), Oistrakh/Oberin (Doremi, Warner, Regis), newer recordings like Ehnes/Armstrong (Onyx), Capuçon/Braley (Erato 6420010 - review - review), and so many more. We’re living in a golden age, with such easy access to so many treasurable recordings. But for the present recording, I’ll reiterate my earlier very positive characterization of the album as containing “extremely vital performances, characterized by brio-infused allegros and flowing adagios which still capture the depth and breadth of Beethoven’s writing”.

Chris Salocks

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