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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No 5 in F, Op 24, Spring (1800-01) [22:16]
Violin Sonata No 6 in A, Op 30 No 1 (1802) [21:52]
Violin Sonata No 7 in C minor, Op 30 No 2 (1802) [23:31]
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Martin Helmchen (piano)
rec. February 2020, Robert Schumann Saal, Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, Germany
BIS BIS-2527 SACD [68:32]

Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen began their cycle of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas with Sonatas 1-3 (review). This second SACD is of Sonatas 5-7, the most striking being Number 5, the Spring sonata. The violin’s opening theme finds Zimmermann at his most lyrical, but the elaboration in Helmchen’s repeat demands a shimmering effect at the Allegro tempo, setting him up for a bold ff statement (tr. 1, 0:47) which Zimmermann immediately defuses. Generally, Helmchen relishes playing the hard man to Zimmerman’s more equable one. The skipping second theme (1:09) also has a depressive streak (1:21), nurtured, then discarded at the flick of Zimmermann’s E-natural (1:31) after seven recent E-flats. The partners love to shock: the crashing ff chord beginning the development (4:51), a similar yell with the ending in sight (8:55).

I compare Michael Foyle and Maksim Štšura, also recorded in 2020 (Challenge Classics CC72860). Foyle’s opening is more musing, less sweet than Zimmermann’s. Foyle’s second theme is out to impress rather than the cheeriness of Zimmermann. Its depressive streak is just a passing phase. Zimmermann/Helmchen display an internalized melancholy with the potential to return. Lacking the exposition repeat Zimmermann/Helmchen make, Foyle/Štšura provide stimulating, somewhat abrasive Beethoven, without the sweetness Zimmermann often applies and Helmchen’s more mercurial playing.

The Adagio molto espressivo slow movement brings a delicate melodic line decked out with up to hemidemisemiquaver elaboration, first by piano, then violin. The piano’s second statement of the theme (tr. 2, 2:06) expands and ornamentally elaborates it while the violin adds now pertly cheery, now wistfully sweet comments. The theme goes into the minor (2:42), played with great control yet deeply resolute effect by Zimmermann, while Helmchen sustains a comfortingly warm, highly modified Alberti bass. When they switch roles and Helmchen takes up an elaboration of the theme with demisemiquavers, for me he’s less convincing in the climactic crescendo (from 3:58) than Zimmermann later (4:16), though his rounding off the climax (4:19) is fine as is the partners’ closing, affectionate exchange.

Foyle/Štšura’s account is fresh without the warmth of Zimmermann/Helmchen. Foyle’s comments on the piano’s second statement of the theme have less character than Zimmermann’s, yet Foyle’s wan change into the minor and resolution following sadness prove a stark, sincere witness. Štšura’s climactic crescendo is clearer than Helmchen’s and comparable to Foyle’s, but Foyle/Štšura’s close is cooler than Zimmermann/Helmchen’s.

The terse Allegro molto Scherzo, Zimmermann/Helmchen taking 1:04, make full of zest. The first strain is marked not to be repeated, giving more piquancy to the repeat of the shorter second strain and the jovial interplay of the partners. Their Trio (tr. 3, 0:25) is outrageous barnstorming. Foyle/Štšura, taking 1:20, less molto, concentrate on razor-like rhythmic precision, but I miss Zimmermann’s more smiling and Helmchen’s more mellow quality, while both delight more in the Trio’s sheer sprint.

The Allegro ma non troppo rondo finale starts relaxed, its theme slightly laid-back tripping begun by piano, then joined by violin, who starts the first episode (tr. 4, 0:25): a pointed, fastidious dance. Ornamentation, trills and accents increase, so soon Zimmermann/Helmchen have a bit of a scrap. Episode 2, its theme continually syncopated (1:47), is bouncily projected by Helmchen against Zimmermann’s running quavers in triplets. They change places and go at it hammer and tongs. This being a sonata rondo, in the development, when the minor passage works to a climax (4:22), the interchange of Zimmermann and Helmchen is spiky indeed. Helmchen’s second repeat of the rondo theme (4:42), in jocular, tumbling quavers, encourages Zimmermann to present it in dotted rhythm. What starts a benign coda of thankfulness (5:36) becomes another combative exchange, Helmchen with the last and fullest ff contribution.

Foyle/Štšura, timing the finale at 6:34 to Zimmermann/Helmchen’s 6:08, note more the ma non troppo, bringing a more impassive, also retrospective, quality, with a dogged first episode. In episode 2, Foyle/Štšura bring gusto of equal strength to melody and accompaniment where Zimmermann/Helmchen favour the melody as Beethoven’s markings ask. At Štšura’s second repeat of the rondo theme I like the musing, heartfelt nostalgia of Foyle’s comments above it. But their coda beginning is less warm than Zimmermann/Helmchen’s, and continues gruffer than Zimmermann/Helmchen’s relished contest.

Best of the rest? With Sonata 6, the second movement, Adagio molto espressivo, a first theme of high tessitura, narrow melodic compass but what yearning. The second theme (tr. 6, 0:58) has Zimmermann cautioning paradise may be short-lived, yet also determined to fight for it, while Helmchen’s take-up is more optimistic. The first theme return comes with exquisite contentment from Zimmermann, Helmchen’s accompaniment now seeming calmer and his take-up of the theme festooned with trills (2:14, 2:21), marked as sforzandos in the Bärenreiter and Henle urtexts, yet a modification fitting the joyous moment. A third theme (2:45), after injecting drama with Zimmermann’s sforzandos, has him musing in both extremes of register, so I like Helmchen’s repeat of the theme calmer with the sforzandos. Zimmermann develops a more solemn arioso (3:13), to which Helmchen’s again more optimistic, poetically turned response is a surprise. The coda (5:06) luxuriates in affectionate longing, both ornate and delicate.

With Sonata 7, my choice the first movement. This Allegro con brio’s opening phrase from Helmchen is the heart of the spookily brooding first theme. Its repeat is first ruminating from Zimmermann, dismissed by Helmchen’s melodramatic left-hand semiquavers, yet Zimmermann fashions a cogent end. The swaggering dotted-rhythm second theme (tr. 8, 0:50) is defiantly cheerful. As the partners exchange roles, they enjoy its amenability to an accompaniment of jubilant counterpoint in running quavers. A third theme from Zimmermann (2:12), introduces a mysterious quest for understanding. In the first theme recapitulation, awe provoking chords from Helmchen (3:50) and a solemn sigh of an introductory phrase from Zimmermann (4:00) add to its fervour. But the second theme recap also bids for mastery in Zimmermann/Helmchen’s sheer dandy-like neatness. Eventually an unexpected crescendo signals the winning theme’s arrival (6:50). The coda impresses in the growing tumult of Helmchen’s accompaniment as the first theme assumes total mastery.
Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: Chris Salocks

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