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Two of the Most Talented: Barenboim and Zukerman Play Beethoven

The MHS Review 382 Vol. 11, NO. 4 • 1987

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David M. Greene

Well, anyhow, here we are with another volume of the Beethoven fiddle sonatas, played by two of the musically fairest-­haired boys of our time.


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Last night, I am told, marked the end of the most recent PBS "pledge week"-a 14-day festival. Apart from an addiction to the morning and evening network news, and reruns of "The Rockford Files," I watch very little television. But pledge week and The Great On-Air Auction re­mind me to avoid PBS at all costs. With regard to the latter, I am not that ac­quisitive, and the show strikes me as about as enjoyable as watching grass grow. With regard to the former, first of all the "specials" seem to be aimed at more easi­ly pleased tastes than mine. And secondly they are constantly interrupted by pleas for money delivered by rather odd-looking people apparently selected for their lack of presence and charm. By contrast with them, network commercials seem like Saharan oases.

My attitude makes me feel guilty. God knows, our ascetic president has given PBS enough trouble. But the fact is that I find myself nowadays drawn only to its musical programs-with decreasing frequency. No doubt there is an explanation for their sameness and the distorted picture they give of the world of serious music. It was the present record that set off this train of thought. Want to hear a tenor? You get a choice of Luciano or Placido. A conductor? It's Jimmy or Lenny or Zubin. A violinist? We have Pinchas or Itzhak. And so on with Joan and Marilyn and Wynton and the flute-playing leprechaun, etc., etc.

I have nothing against these people--far from it! They are all splendid musicians, some of them undoubtedly the best around, and people I'd go out of my way to hear. But a little variety might be welcome, except that it probably would not draw the audiences that these people do, thanks to effective publicity staffs. Once in a while I'd like to see-hear, for ex­ample, Elly Ameling or Fischer-Dieskau or Badura-Skoda or Oscar Shumsky or Claudio Abbado. But I doubt it'll ever happen.

Well, anyhow, here we are with another volume of the Beethoven fiddle sonatas, played by two of the musically fairest-­haired boys of our time. I have already pointed out that, when it was issued abroad, the series met with universal and virtually unqualified applause, on purely musical grounds that seem to have had nothing to do with PR or glamour. Zuker­man and Barenboim are two of the most talented musicians presently before the public, and the fact that they are friends who have played together for years does not hurt their case one whit.

Beethoven first tackled a violin sonata (really a piano-and-violin sonata) under cir­cumstances that remain obscure, around 1790, but did not complete it. His first suc­cessful effort was begun in 1797 and culminated the next year in a set of three, which he dedicated to Salieri, with whom he took sporadic lessons in vocal composi­tion around that time. What Salieri thought of them we don't know--though later he took such a dislike to Beethoven's "moder­nism" that the latter pronounced him his enemy. (Did Salieri kill Beethoven? Answer: No, for. he predeceased him by two years.) Though the works strike us as relatively unadventurous, we know that friends of Haydn's already considered them unforgivably dissonant. After that Beethoven went on turning out such pieces on an almost-yearly basis, reaching no. 9 (the "Kreutzer") in 1803. It was followed only by the nameless no. 10, nine years later.

The "Kreutzer," later dedicated to violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (and the title source of a famous story by Tolstoy), was put together for George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. Bridgetower, a violin vir­tuoso and sometime prodigy, was the son of a black African father and a white Euro­pean mother. Beethoven met him in Vien­na in the spring of 1803 and promised him a sonata. But he dawdled over the first two movements until mid-May, when he found he was to accompany Bridgetower in a concert. He dashed off the rest of the slow movement (too late to have it copied) and tacked on a discarded finale for the Sixth Sonata (A major). Surprisingly, the finish­ed product was not only a success, but is generally rated the peak of the series.

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