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EXPLORING MUSIC:A POWERFUL TEAM Final Volume of Beethoven's Works for Violin and Piano

The MHS Review 385, Vol. 11 No. 7, 1987

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David M. Greene


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The use of the term sonata goes back to the 16th century, where it merely indicates that the piece should be performed ("sound­ed") instrumentally rather than vocally. Through a slow progress which need not con­cern us here, sonata came, toward the end of the next century, to designate one of two forms of instrumental music: the sonata da camera or chamber sonata, a suite of dances, and the sonata da chiesa or church sonata, a succession of four movements alternately slow and fast. These were usually for one or two melody instruments and a basso con­tinuo, wherein a player of a chordal instru­ment supplied the harmonies indicated by a bottom line that was often reinforced by a monophonic bass instrument such as the cello, gamba, or bassoon. The melody in­struments were more often than not violins, and thus in the baroque violin sonata the fid­dle played the hero's part and the keyboar­-

dist that of the faithful but unobtrusive retainer.

A younger generation, however, grew bored with all the intellectual structuring of the baroque, and did a complete volta face, especially where the violin sonata and its close kin were concerned. Properly it was no longer a violin sonata but a keyboard sonata with violin accompaniment. As William S. Newman explains (The Sonata in the Classic Era) things went farther than that. As keyboard in­struments began to flex their muscles, the per­former might opt for harpsichord, fortepiano, or pianoforte. A cellist could be brought in at will to play the bass line. The violinist could be supplanted by a flutist or a bagpiper or anyone whose instrument covered the in­dicated range. And finally the violinist was regarded as quite dispensable.

The annotator of this record indicates that most of Mozart's so-called violin sonatas were thus conceived, and that Haydn's contribu­tions to the genre were few. There exist several Haydn sonatas with violin accom­paniments, but most of the latter were add­ed by other hands to piano sonatas, and only one of them is now considered to be possibly by Haydn himself. Beethoven followed the practice of the times by indicating that his 10 sonatas for the combination in question are sonatas for piano and violin.

But this gesture was mostly a convention, an unconscious reflex, for Beethoven probably. did more than anyone to make the two participants in such work equals. This is hard­ly surprising: though Beethoven was a great pianist, he was also a professional string man, having been a violist in the court orchestra at Bonn. And the sonatas are among the re­quisites of every violinist's repertoire. Yet splendid as they are, everyone agrees that as compelling music they operate on a slightly lower plane than do the piano sonatas. One can hear them without feeling that the cosmos has somehow been changed.

This set finishes out the canon as perform­ed by the Messrs. Zukerman and Barenboim, about as powerful a team as you'll encounter today, and certainly as famous a one. The album also provides a nice overview of the series if you are not having more than one. Apart from a false start from around 1790 and the final op. 96 of 1812, all of Beethoven's violin sonatas were written between 1797 and 1803. Here we omit all three of the op. 12 set, the composer's first completed essays in the form, and begin with the fresh and free­-spirited "Spring" Sonata (not Beethoven's ti­tle), the second of what amount to his second set, though the two works belonging to it were issued separately in 1801 as opp. 23-24. Next come the first two of the op. 30 set of the following year, where the transition from the more-or-less traditional (no. 1) to the im­aginatively independent (no. 2) becomes obvious.

Finally there is the mature and somewhat enigmatic final sonata. This was written for Beethoven's patron and pupil to play with the great Bordeaux-born violinist Pierre Rode. Rode was returning from a long stint in St. Petersburg as violinist to Tsar Alexander I. Despite the fellow's great reputation, Beethoven did not like what he heard and sent Rode the score afterwards with the delicate hint that maybe he should practice it. Rode probably didn't. In fact he drifted out of the virtuoso business and seven years later return­ed to Bordeaux to sip the claret and enjoy life. After being out of practice for a decade, he suddenly got the urge and gave a Paris con­cert that so embarrassed him that he faded rapidly, suffered a stroke, and died at age 56, a year younger and three years later than Beethoven.

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