Beethoven: The Complete Works for Violin and Piano – Paul Barritt & James Lisney

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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
German Dances, WoO42
Rondo in G, WoO41
Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’ from Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro”, WoO40

Paul Barritt (violin) & James Lisney (piano)

Recorded between December 2004 and April 2006 in St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, England

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: October 2006
WOODCD803/6 (4 CDs)
Duration: 4 hours 13 minutes

Quite an adventure, this: a journey through Beethoven’s Sonatas for Piano and Violin at a single sitting. Not, of course, obligatory – any one sonata can be selected and explored – but more a reflection of Paul Barritt and James Lisney undertaking the ten sonatas in a single day at the Royal College of Music on 15 October 2006 – as covered for The Classical Source by Kenneth Carter.

Beethoven prescribed these sonatas, certainly the early ones, as being for piano and violin (Woodhouse’s presentation opts for violin and piano). There is an absurd notion that perceives the pianist as only present to make the numbers up; and some can plod attentively while the ‘star’ violinist, cellist or singer dominates proceedings. Duo-sonatas demand equality. Paul Barritt and James Lisney are indeed equals and work well as a partnership; their sharing co-operation is palpable as is their respective individuality. And what a fine job producer and engineer Gary Cole has done to present such equality with space and focus in a very sympathetic acoustic. In fact the recording is ideal in terms of fidelity to the instruments – with Barritt confident and sparkling and Lisney dextrous and sonorous.

Both musicians are alive to the humour of Beethoven’s music as well as its gravitas; the first and second movements of the A major Sonata (Opus 12/Number 2) is a fine example of this, a work that closes with insouciance. The largesse of the E flat Sonata, third of the Opus 12 collection, is well brought out, unhurried and imposing, dignified yet incisive. In the slow movement there is a beatific calm (Barritt finding a veiled tone for his opening ‘accompaniment’ and then sweetness for the melody); a rapt account. The finale has a merry scamper.

Indeed, the three sonatas making up Opus 12 receive lively and shapely accounts. The second movement Variations of the D major Sonata are strongly characterised and its finale has irresistible joie de vivre. Barritt’s rough-hewn tone and laser-like top register is ideal for this music, and there’s also warmth and suavity of expression; his spot-on intonation and overall clarity is enviable.

The second disc couples the Opus 23 work and the loveable ‘Spring’ Sonata, together with some Variations on an aria from Mozart’s ‘Figaro’, a Rondo, and some German Dances. The A minor Sonata’s energy is well sustained, even through the second repeat, its observance made inevitable. The finale is a little soft around the edges, maybe. The ‘Spring’ is elegantly turned, a mellifluous performance entirely in keeping with this delightful and radiant work. The ‘Mozart Variations’ begins with mandolin-like pizzicatos, the Rondo is a delightful romp, the recurring tune used elsewhere by Beethoven, surely, and the Six German Dances are all over in a five-minute flash.

The Opus 30 sonatas are very sophisticated pieces, expansive in one sense, concise in another; and what wonderful interplay Beethoven induces, and how well Barritt and Lisney propose this to the listener. The many moods – from buoyant to tender – are beautifully realised by this duo; the finale of the G major work is especially droll, Lisney setting the mood from the off.

The final CD couples two mighty and very contrasted works – the heroic ‘Kreutzer’ and the magnificently lyrical G major. In the former Barritt is imploring in the unaccompanied opening and Lisney makes a profound response, although the instruments’ coming together and the dazzling Presto is maybe too reserved. Make no mistake: this is big, serious playing but it needs a little more impetuosity to it, although the lyrical second subject is shaped lovingly and in confiding terms. Both artists have the scale and demonstration of this great work, even if they are occasionally a little coy about it, but many things engage the ears, Lisney’s weighting of chords between 10’54” and 11’08”, for example. The central set of Variations is given with vitality and character.

A few more seconds’ gap would have been welcome between the ‘Kreutzer’ and the serene G major Sonata, which receives sublime but not unruffled treatment from Barritt and Lisney. The finale, with its ditty-like tune, a country bumpkin to the sophisticate heard earlier, is brought off with disarming delight.

This is a notable release, then, one to return to, and beautifully presented with a 15-page essay on the sonatas by Simon Nicholls. Barritt and Lisney are an exceptional duo, and their performances of these ten sonatas encompass poise, interaction, drive and energy in renditions that are thoughtful and perceptive, fresh and engaging, thoroughly absorbed in the music, and which raise the stakes of a corpus of music all too easy, the ‘Kreutzer’ aside, to underestimate.

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