Thursday, November 5, 2009

In review--Piano Beethoven's Forte

Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov
Beethoven Complete Sonatas for Piano and Violin
Harmonia Mundi

If someone wanted to become intimate with the Romantic musician-composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), spending time with the composer’s scores would certainly open a door. Many classically-trained musicians and scholars delved into the German composer’s scores, though barely decipherable given the composer’s messy handwriting and equally messy palette of raw emotions Beethoven brought to his sonatas and other work. And the musicians would also discover when researching the composer that he started out as a violinist and even mastered the instrument, though piano turned out to be his forte (pun intended).

Hungarian pianist and Beethoven interpreter AndrĂ s Schiff recorded the entire cycle of the German composer’s piano sonatas for ECM Records, with the last recording of the series released in 2009. Now, German violinist Isabelle Faust and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov recorded all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, released on a 4-CD set which includes a DVD documentary of the recording process, fascinating in itself.

While each musician brings her own awareness, musical skills and scholarly knowledge to their instrument when performing Beethoven’s music, Faust and Melnikov bring a sense of excitement, pathos and wonder to their interpretations of these sonatas that appear on Beethoven Complete Sonatas for Piano and Violin. The musicians combine pragmatic thought with intuition and keen musical sensitivities. They pay homage to Beethoven while also taking on a formidable task of making sense of a large body of work, written over a span of 15 years.

In the documentary the musicians are shown contemplating Beethoven’s scores, musical direction and the composer’s personal life. Similar to other scholars and musicians that have tackled these multidimensional scores, the musicians discussed Beethoven’s sense of humor, his playfulness, passion and even his sentimental feelings. Beethoven as a person shared complexity with his music. And any listener fearful of emotions would do better to find a more detached composer, and outside of the Romantic era.

So where does a reviewer begin with a collection of ten sonatas? Beethoven composed the first eight sonatas for his friend virtuoso violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Sweet lyrical passages explode into sharp musical outbursts that eventually dissolve into humorous, even sarcastic musical statements. The first sonata opens with a bold declaration, a short motif and then the violin waxes lyrical and the piano responds in a more pragmatic tone. The two instruments participate equally in a musical conversation and they engage in a tit for tat.

The composer provided the musicians with plenty of upward runs creating elation and perhaps transcendence in listeners. And we have only just begun because this rich palette of emotions explodes during the first movement of the first sonata. It’s best to listen to the sonatas one at a time or one disc per day. Otherwise, a listener might find themselves too exhausted from the experience—feels like intense therapy at times.

Each sonata has its distinct personality, though they all share in common sweet moments, revelry, humor and passionate outbursts, as this seems to be par for the course with Beethoven, and his sonatas appear as smaller canvases that contain similar motifs to his symphonies.

While it would be impossible to review every sonata on this 4-CD set, all of them have been listened to with pleasure. And the liner notes were read thoroughly, even if some of the musical terms fell on deaf ears. Suffice to say that sonatas #9 and #10 away from the first eight sonatas. Sonata #9 was composed for Rodolphe Kruetzer, who never performed it in public because he found it “unintelligible” (liner notes). Kruetzer preferred to play in legato notes and the sonata was written in staccato notes. Sonata #10 was composed for French violinist Jacques Pierre Joseph Rode and it premiered in Prince Lobkowitz’s palace on December 29, 1812. Sonata #10 appears on disc #2 along with Sonata #4 and Sonata #5, also known as, Spring Sonata. While Sonata #9 appears alone on the backside of the DVD (disc #4).

After listening to all ten sonatas and watching the DVD, it’s impossible to distinguish one sonata movement for another. I hope to become more acquainted with this collection over time. However, I have found a few health benefits listening to the sonatas. I believe that the exploration of emotions that appear in the sonatas, absorbing and releasing those emotions can only act as a catharsis.

I listened to the sonatas before falling asleep and I woke up the next morning exploding with creativity. When I listen to Beethoven’s work, when performed by sensitive musicians, I unblock my creative flow and I feel tension release from my body. I don’t know what the composer’s intentions were when he composed music, but I feel that he immersed his music in honest emotions and that through his music he worked his way to the other side, which at many times resembles transcendence.

Harmonia Mundi

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