Friday, December 07, 2012

Sunday Classics preview: This 40-second piano-and-violin excerpt is one of my favorite musical moments


by Ken

This roughly 40-second piano-and-violin excerpt is for me a cherished musical moment, so we've heard it four times -- in performances that are pretty different but all pretty fine, I think. (We're actually going to hear another performance I'm not so crazy about.)

I thought I'd hold off a moment identifying, not just the performers, but the music. I'd like to think that listeners who don't recognize the music may be just a little surprised to learn who wrote it.


(1) Zino Francescatti, violin; Robert Casadesus, piano (1958)
(2) Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Wilhelm Kempff, piano (1970)
(3) Josef Suk, violin; Jan Panenka, piano (1966-67)
(4) Arthur Grumiaux, violin; Clara Haskil, piano (1956)


. . . the suddenly major-key expansion of the minor-key opening theme from the second movement of the second sonata from Beethoven's Op. 12 set of three sonatas for violin and piano, Nos. 1-3 of his eventual ten sonatas. It's a beautiful little Andante -- or maybe not exactly an Andante, given the tempo marking that suggests it's meant to have more the character of a decidedly more flowing Allegretto.

* For the pianist, the very simplicity of the start of our excerpt helps separate the artists from the key-pounders. In our excerpts clip I think we've got four genuine artists, whose artistry will be be more fully displayed when we hear them play the whole movement in just a movement.

* For the violinist, we've got, well, the makings of magic. On the most prosaic level, we're hearing how pretty much the same music becomes wildly different music when played first on the piano and then on the violin with piano accompaniment. Again, I think we've got four pretty darned fine fiddlers.


. . . that I recently heard a three-recital series comprising all 10 Beethoven violin sonatas, which is what set me to thinking about the music. As I'll explain Sunday, I got a jolt when, a day or two after the conclusion of the live performances, I put on a CD containing the three Op. 12 sonatas, and was surprised and relieved to hear the music opening up in ways I hadn't heard much of in those three recitals.

Ironically, that CD is also the source of this performance of our Andante which, as I mentioned earlier, I'm not so crazy about. The pianist seems to me locked into a sort of swoony mock-poetic attitude, while the violinist is just sort of slathering this gentle yet tough music with a cloyingly sugary vibrato.

BEETHOVEN: Violin-Piano Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 12, No. 2:
ii. Andante, più tosto allegretto

Pinchas Zukerman, violin; Daniel Barenboim, piano. EMI, recorded in Berlin, December 1971


We're going to hear our performances -- all from recordings of the complete 10 sonatas -- in the same order that we heard the excerpts in the clip:

* We start with Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus, who shun musical frills and folderol, simply going straight to the core of the music. (I'm kidding about that "simply." Playing of this focused understanding requires amazingly sophisticated musicianship.)

* When DG decided to pair Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff to record the Beethoven sonatas for the 1970 Beethoven bicentennial, it seemed a curious partnership, but it worked out awfully well. We already heard in the clip both performers' noteworthy ability to play softly with real character. For an old-school Germanic classicist, Kempff plays amazingly beautifully, and he and Menuhin sound like they had been playing together all their lives. (They hadn't.)

* I have a special affection for the performance by Josef Suk and Jan Panenka. Panenka, a fine soloist in his own right, was a valued colleague of the distinctively elegant, silver-toned Suk, whose passion for chamber music was reflected in his longtime collaboration with Panenka and cellist Josef Chuchro as the great Suk Trio.

* But even I have to admit that it's hard to top the famous recorded collaboration of Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil. Considering Haskil's chronically poor health, it's a wonder that she came within a month of lasting till her 66th birthday (and in fact died from a fall in a train station), and Grumiaux for one, more than 25 years her junior, always cherished his collaboration with her. The collaboration is breathtaking -- it's not just that they play beautifully but that they phrase so intimately and with such uncanny consistency.

BEETHOVEN: Violin-Piano Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 12, No. 2:
ii. Andante, più tosto allegretto

Zino Francescatti, violin; Robert Casadesus, piano. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded in Paris, 1958

Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Wilhelm Kempff, piano. DG, recorded in London, June 1970

Josef Suk, violin; Jan Panenka, piano. Supraphon, recorded in Prague, 1966-67

Arthur Grumiaux, violin; Clara Haskil, piano. Philips-Decca, recorded in Vienna, September 1956


I'll try to explain my reaction to the live Beeethoven violin-sonata cycle with some suitable musical illustrations.

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At 12:27 PM, Anonymous me said...

I'd like to think that listeners who don't recognize the music may be just a little surprised to learn who wrote it.

Can I take a stab at it?

At 8:07 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Well, sure, me, as long as you swear you haven't clicked through for the rest of the post, where our Man of Mystery is rather conspicuously identified.


At 12:02 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...

The fiddle container can keep the instrument from being handled by simply anyone that walks within the space. It keeps the instrument clean and safe from accidents and pronto on the market for taking part in anytime you wish. Plus, they solely extremely look nice displayed within the case!


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