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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
The Ten Sonatas for Violin and Piano - Volume 1
Sonata No. 1 in D, Op. 12 no. 1 [20:28]
Sonata No. 2 in A, Op 12 no. 2 [16:38]
Sonata No. 3 in E flat, Op 12 no. 3 [20:25]
Sonata No. 4 in A minor, Op 23 [21:01]
Sonata No. 5 in F, Op 24, ‘Spring’ [26:05]
Elizabeth Wallfisch (violin); David Breitman (fortepiano)
rec. 9-14 January 2012, Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales. DDD
NIMBUS NI6245 [57:31 + 47:06]

From the first lively bars of the first Sonata (Op. 12, no. 1) you know you've made the right decision to explore Classical repertoire on period instruments. The sound across this 2-CD set is immediate, penetrating yet mellow and enveloping. In what must be the first of a series of two sets - Beethoven wrote ten such sonatas - Australian Elizabeth Wallfisch (b. 1952) plays a copy by Ekkard Seidl from 1997 of a Guarnerius del Gésu. The bow is from the 1780s and was made by James Dodd. David Breitman, director of the Historical Performance programme at Oberlin College in Ohio, plays a five octave fortepiano by Paul McNulty. It’s a modern copy of one from 1792 by Anton Walter.
To match the life which this choice of instruments breathes - blows, almost - into the early sonatas (those in Op. 12 date from 1798, Op. 23 and the 'Spring' from 1801), the playing is energetic, rounded and perceptive. That is, the players’ phrasing, their sense of each movement's (each work's) direction all do justice to the sense of the excitement with which these works are shot through.
Similarly, their determination to fall in with Beethoven's forward movement both makes for a pleasing sense of a journey through the composer's work in the genre; and also sponsors our personal involvement in enjoying the melody, texture and delightful sound world which these two instruments inhabit. Listen to the twists and turns, to the handling of the unexpected, of the insistent, of the balance between wry assurance and restraint yet the independently revealed muscle of the first, presto, movement of the Op. 23 (CD 2, tr.1), for instance. At the same time, the approach of Wallfisch and Breitman is one of declared and almost defiant collaboration … they support, complement, enhance and reinforce each other superbly.
None of these technical aspects of the performances would be enough, though, if Wallfisch and Breitman didn't thoroughly understand the music, and appreciate whence it derives its energy and vitality. Since they do, they are able to let the quieter, more sensitive passages speak for themselves … we are entirely 'in the moment'. The adagio of Op. 12, no. 3 (CD.1 tr.8), for example, is as tender as it is sonorous. Indeed sensitivity to Beethoven's quieter, more reflective moods is one of the strengths here. For these sonatas can be seen to be about mood, humour and constitution as much as drive and Beethoven's irrepressible vigour.
Wallfisch and Breitman have also understood that Beethoven wrote the works as someone who could almost effortlessly achieve a splendid yet modestly-expressed balance between delighting in an established form (the string sonata) and experimenting with it — taking it to new places. This understanding brings two things here. First the confidence in the playing is evident as they empathise with Beethoven's own sense of achievement. Second there’s a certain freedom of movement: the work and its import will endure because its expression is so spontaneously delivered.
Breitman elicits from the fortepiano its quality of speaking the notes - as opposed to singing them in the way for which Glenn Gould was most famous. Yet the lines of Beethoven's writing in each of these five works are clean, distinct and melodious on these recordings. Even though Wallfisch's violin lacks the depth and enfolding overtones of a modern instrument, the mixture of rigour with love - albeit unsentimental - which the pair brings to each and every bar means that there is nothing remotely harsh, forced or rough in the music-making. Specifically, Breitman is never over-recorded to compensate for the somewhat reduced volume - especially in the fortepiano's upper register.
What makes the togetherness, the collaborative nature of what we hear so successful is the variety of techniques which the two performers employ to ensure that Beethoven's intention that these be heard as 'Sonatas for piano with violin' is respected … they weave in, out and around each other's lines. They take alternate cues one from the other. They swap leads. They almost finish each other's sentences. Where contrast is needed, they provide it. Where unity, they're unified.
It's obvious that - in achieving the dream which both Breitman and Wallfisch had for years, of recording these sonatas together - they also learnt a great deal. Although the performances are highly polished – but never constrained - they are testimony to two leading players' sense of new discovery and rethinking.
The acoustic of the Nimbus concert hall is just right. Atmosphere has yielded entirely to the individual notes, each one of which is as clear as the unpolluted water in the stream into which Beethoven threw leaves and sticks. As has been said, "the best thing about the fortepiano is that you can hear everything; the worst thing about the fortepiano is that you can hear everything!" That said, both Wallfisch and Breitman relish the unforgiving qualities of the historically informed approach in this already difficult and intricate repertoire. It's to be noted that the recording credits two engineers for the fortepiano.
The CD's booklet discusses the works, their place in the repertoire and the players' attraction to them. This is based not least on the fact that taken together, all ten are representative of Beethoven's chronological development. They also serve to illustrate the development of the piano as an instrument over the fifty years of the composer's life. Wallfisch's discussion of the technicalities of choosing and using early violins and the changes in bowing (and bows) which they require is also illuminating.
Period instrument performances of these works aren't exactly thick on the ground. Even if they were, these make very worthy candidates for your consideration as ones to buy and become familiar with. Although the word that keeps springing to mind when describing their approach is 'freshness', and indeed the five sonatas released on this set are full of life and energy, they are nonetheless imaginatively played, carefully constructed and centred on Beethoven's depth and insight as much as anything else.

Mark Sealey