Feature Review: Beethoven’s Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano in a Day – Paul Barritt & James Lisney

Written by: Kenneth Carter


Sonatas for Piano and Violin:

Sonata in D, Op.12/1

Sonata in A, Op.12/2

Sonata in E flat, Op.12/3

Sonata in A minor, Op.23

Sonata in F, Op.24 (Spring)

Sonata in A, Op.30/1

Sonata in C minor, Op.30/2

Sonata in G, Op.30/3

Sonata in A minor, Op.47 (Kreutzer)

Sonata in G, Op.96

Paul Barritt (violin) & James Lisney (piano)

Sunday 15 October 2006

The Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

All of Beethoven’s ‘Violin Sonatas’ played on a single day by Paul Barritt and James Lisney. From 11 o’clock in the morning – the three sonatas of Opus 12 and the one entitled ‘Spring’; from 4 o’clock – the A minor and the first two of the Opus 30 works; and, finally, from the hour of 7, the remaining Opus 30 piece, the ‘Kreutzer’, and the culminating Sonata in G.

These sonatas receive relatively little attention. They have suffered in four ways. Firstly, there’s sheer neglect. Individual sonatas do not often feature in concert-hall programming, with the notable exception of the ‘Spring’ and the ‘Kreutzer’. Even less do we come across an occasion such as this, when all ten were performed. (Yet, spread over several evenings, one might hear a whole cycle of string quartets or piano sonatas.) Secondly, there’s critical neglect: musical analysis is virtually confined to the extensive but unpublished performing notes that Szigeti drew up some fifty years ago and the recently published symposium from Lewis Lockwood and Mark Kroll. Thirdly, there’s esteem: eight of the sonatas tend to be dismissed as ‘early’ works. Lastly, as Lisney himself suggested, performers have tended to regard the sonatas as not requiring much preparation, i.e. as ‘easy’ to play. The public, he adds, have thus become habituated to unpolished, run-of–the-mill, non-probing performances, which detract from the music.

Yet Beethoven’s sonatas are revolutionary, changing the face of music just as much as his symphonies, the piano sonatas and the string quartets. Before Beethoven, piano and violin duos were essentially piano sonatas with the violin providing obbligato or an echo, sometimes declared dispensable! Indeed, Beethoven published the Opus 12 threesome as ‘Three sonatas for the harpsichord or fortepiano, with a violin’.

Here, Beethoven was being unfair to himself. He took the violin’s part seriously – to the extent that he, for a while, committed himself to thrice-weekly lessons with Ignaz Schuppanzigh, one of Vienna’s prime violinists at the time. According to James Lisney, Beethoven played the violin part in some performances of these first sonatas, as also did Schuppanzigh. These are apprentice works – Beethoven cutting his teeth, as it were. Nevertheless, the sense of a restless spirit, keen to explore the possibilities of an at-present unfamiliar medium is vivid. The violin is more prominent than in most of Mozart’s sonatas; there is more ‘swapping’ between the two performers; and, as always with Beethoven, there is playing about with musical ideas, such as a two-note ‘theme’ with differing intervals and the robust, onward-pressing modulations in the A major Sonata. The third of these Opus 12 sonatas, in E flat, is extraordinary. Suddenly, Beethoven finds his voice – his heroic, E flat major voice, the voice that became the ‘Eroica’ and the ‘Emperor’. Beethoven is in command of his form. He produced a ‘maestoso’-like theme that is grand on the piano and resplendent on the violin. Consolidating and commemorating this breakthrough, the Barritt/Lisney duo ended their first recital with the ‘Spring’ sonata. Here, the sun shone through – brightly, lyrically and soaring. Piano and violin were equal, exuberant partners now.

The Barritt-Lisney duo is long-standing and of high repute. Their debut was at the Concertgebouw in 1997. The first point to strike me was how superbly they play together – not merely in the conventional sense of keeping the same time. Their rapport is such that that they can experiment with the music – play about with it in terms of sudden fluctuations of tempo, moments of sudden hardness or softness, and so on. All these make for performances that are alive, lively and spontaneous … performances that persons strange to each other could not dare to offer.

An engaging bonus, demonstrating the harmony of their duality, was that Lisney and Barritt took it in turns to introduce each sonata.

An extraordinary feature of this unity is the disparity of their respective performing styles. James Lisney is relaxed (in a somewhat Olympian manner) and nimble, though rather tight-lipped. He excels at one of the prime requisites of Beethoven playing – the capacity to execute a virtually non-stop forward thrust whilst adapting adroit fingers into expressing a panorama of moods, catching them neatly as they pass by, often fleetingly. He is the master, here – as he is with the swagger, the grandeur, the vitality, the playfulness, and the insouciance. He sometimes shies away from softer expression. He can do it – and extremely well.

Paul Barritt, on the other hand, is the more lyrical and sweeter toned. This is a great asset in these sonatas. If I were only permitted to give one reason why these sonatas deserve to be played more often, it must be the wealth of glorious slow movements, where Beethoven allows himself to sing. There is also, I must declare, an element of calculation in Barritt’s playing – Beethoven’s mercurial shifts, his twists and turns, do not come easily to Barritt; he has to think about how he is to play what is about to come. Spontaneity is lacking. So is a natural feel for Beethoven’s impassioned swell – the driving forward with eager tension and then the great, joyous, complete release. Barritt had to work at these moments of suspense. I could, so to speak, hear the wheels of his mental clock grinding and meshing.

The remaining concerts showed us Beethoven becoming more and more the master of this particular craft. The C minor sonata (the second of Opus 30) gave us a bitingly grand culmination to the second concert. It is worth remembering that these ‘early’ sonatas sit alongside the first two symphonies and the first three piano concertos, together with the first 20 piano sonatas, including the ‘Pathétique’, the ‘Moonlight’ and the ‘Pastoral’. The ‘Kreutzer’ was begun in the same year as the ‘Eroica’ Symphony and the first version of the last piano-and-violin sonata was written two years after the ‘Serioso’ String Quartet (Opus 95), usually taken to mark the onset of the composer’s ‘last’ period.

There was glorious music-making in these three concerts. Lisney and Barritt set out to show a clear line delineating Beethoven’s increasing assurance over the medium coincident with his swelling expressive powers. After a day’s listening to their able, jubilant demonstration, it was an uplifting experience to leave the Britten Theatre with the memory of final sonata, quirky and serene, unmatched, unsurpassed.

It’s good news that Barritt and Lisney have recorded this cycle.

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