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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No 1 in D, Op 12 No 1 (1797-8) [19:02]
Violin Sonata No 2 in A, Op 12 No 2 (1797-8) [15:12]
Violin Sonata No 3 in E-flat, Op 12 No 3 (1797-8) [18:27]
Violin Sonata No 4 in A minor, Op 23 (1800) [19:34].
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Martin Helmchen (piano)
rec. September 2019, Siemens Villa, Berlin.
BIS BIS-2517 SACD [73:12]

Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen begin their cycle of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas with the first four. My first choice for listening would be the most accessible, Number 1. A distinctive, humorous bite is combined with smooth, curvaceous melodic lines. Zimmermann/Helmchen’s opening Allegro con brio is athletic and gritty. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, come the graceful descents of the second theme (tr. 1, 1:02), first from piano, then more tender and elegant violin, then capricious again before refining into shorter descending phrases exchanged by the musical partners. The third theme, the ff exposition codetta one (2:08) begins from Zimmermann/Helmchen very robust and purposeful, like their movement’s beginning. The development (5:02) takes an even shorter fragment of the second theme and the partners lull us with it until the shock of a sudden forte and then an appreciably clear (as throughout this recording) coalescence of the violin’s falling running quavers and the piano’s wisps of rising semiquavers and crotchets (5:39). This is made a delicious transition to the recapitulation.

I compare James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong (ONYX 4177), also recorded in 2019. Timing the movement at 8:39 to Zimmermann/Helmchen’s 8:06, there’s less con brio: a serious, respectful opening with less zip, but a second theme with more poetry. To the third theme, Zimmermann/Helmchen bring more zest and swing, while their development has more expectancy and electricity.

The tempo slows but there’s still a firm pulse in the Andante con moto theme and variations of the second movement. Zimmermann/Helmchen give the theme a folksy quality, so while the underlying elegance remains perceptible, there’s always a spring in the step and mannerisms, the sforzandos and appoggiaturas, comfortably understated. I like the way both make the sf at the apex of the melody bloom. And then it’s OK in Variation 1 (tr. 2, 1:10) to gorge a bit on ornamentation. In Variation 2 (2:18) Zimmermann relishes his opportunity to shine sweetly. A major becomes A minor just for Variation 3 (3:29), really striking in stimulating crashes and clashes. Variation 4 (4:27) moves from jolly, playful activity from both partners to a fond farewell and twinkling humour coda done with great poise.

Ehnes/Armstrong, timing at 6:37 to Zimmermann/Helmchen’s 6:10, are more relaxed, but this makes the melody’s presentation, especially the sf at its apex a bit didactic. Ehnes/Armstrong’s Variation 1 is richly textured, Variation 2’s energy is preferred over sweetness, Variation 3 is less cataclysmic, yet you feel those breakers racing at you. Their Variation 4 has a more sentimental warmth, their coda one of reverie and gentleness.

The finale is a romping Allegro rondo festooned with syncopations and sforzandos. When Zimmermann repeats Helmchen in the theme, he has to give it a bit more edge because Helmchen has a sforzando entry a quaver beat before Zimmermann’s sforzando. Graciously, Helmchen lets Zimmermann off for his opening entry (tr. 3, 0:11), but definitely not for his second (0:13) and third (0:15) and he does the same in the recapitulation (from 2:15). Happily, in the first episode (0:18) they have the sforzando together. In its second part (0:27) the violin echoes the piano’s motif spikily, but in the third (0:44), dolce, they make friends again. Zimmermann sums up with wistful beauty which Helmchen immediately elaborates, not to be outdone. The rondo theme then goes into the minor (1:11), rescued by a gallant second episode theme from the violin which the piano then elevates to the stratosphere. In the recap in this sonata rondo, Helmchen adds an eingang (mini-cadenza) to his earlier elaboration (3:13). The second episode is only glimpsed (4:02) as confirmation of total optimism within a coda (3:42) of endearing, sweet toying in the chaps’ interplay.

Ehnes/Armstrong’s approach, merry and lightly sprung, is more genteel, the sforzandos only really noticeable when played by both together. The rondo theme in the minor is received philosophically without Zimmerman/Helmchen’s drama, leading to a resolute response in the second episode theme, yet a strikingly heroic cameo of it in a generally more dispassionate coda.

Now, my favourite movements of Sonatas 2-4. With Sonata 2, the second, Andante, pił tosto allegretto, a fastish walking speed for the only sonata on this SACD with a lament as its opening theme in A minor. Helmchen begins it, firm but solemn; Zimmermann is more yielding, coming to terms with grief, while Helmchen brings a touch of protest and anger. The second theme (tr. 5, 1:08), in F major, dolce, is begun by Zimmermann like a grateful recollection of happier times. Helmchen echoing sympathetically, adds an ornament in a repeated phrase (1:27). At the return of the opening theme Helmchen remains stark and formal, Zimmermann muses with a sense of thanksgiving but also something of questioning and protest. In the coda (3:57) Zimmermann reclaims normality as part of grateful remembrance.

With Sonata 3, a slower second movement, Adagio con molto espressione, a study in serenity secured by the loveliest melody on this SACD. Helmchen’s opening is smooth and limpid, Zimmermann’s roseate repeat a lovely, sustained cantilena as Helmchen gamely thrums the guitar impersonation left hand in hemidemisemiquavers. The second theme (tr. 8, 1:52), with marvellous poise from Zimmermann, is of more soul searching with harp like demisemiquavers from Helmchen, who next provides a magical return of the opening theme intensified by greater ornamentation. You appreciate the glorious tranquillity of much of Zimmermann/Helmchen’s unanimity because of a sudden ff shock (4:49) of nightmare alternative.

With Sonata 4 I recommend the Allegro molto rondo finale, another A minor piece, a seething cauldron with periodic surges. The first episode (tr. 12, 0:17) is shadowy, wispy, ending with an Adagio of distress for both players in turn. The second episode (1:14), in A major, is all rosiness and idle contentment, but the third (1:51) is a song of hope in F major led by the violin. The returning rondo theme reapplies the tension and the climax, the most exciting passage on this SACD, finds trenchant chords, triple stopping from the violin, exchanged with gypsy abandon (3:28).

Michael Greenhalgh

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