In 2014, Krysia Osostowicz and I were working on the cycle of 10 Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Piano, on that kind of musical high that comes from immersion in the depths of fathomless art. We began talking about what we could do to mark out our cycle from the many that have come before; this repertoire is central to any serious violin/piano duo’s work and performing these 10 works side-by-side has become de rigeur. How would we join a tradition that included Oistrakh/Oberin, Szigeti/Arrau, Kramer/Argerich, and indeed which is being constantly updated? – at least three new versions have come out on disc in the intervening five years.
By May of 2015 we had commissioned 10 composers to write a short partner piece to one of the sonatas and were walking on to the stage at Kings Place in London to give the first concerts in a cycle that now consisted of 20 works, and a vibrant conversation across two centuries. Almost all the composers we approached were incredibly enthusiastic to join the project. Beethoven clearly still exerts his power, nearly 200 years after his death. This month, after further performances of the complete cycle in towns as far-ranging as Aberdeen, Oxford, Sheffield, Bristol and Cambridge, culminating in a series at the brand new Cedars Hall in Wells, which we recorded live, our second double album is released on SOMM Recordings, completing the set.
As soon as we began to receive the new works we realised that not only was Beethoven still an inspirational figure for 21st-century composers, but also that their work was shedding new light on his sonatas. Jonathan Dove’s ebullient Ludwig Games, conceived as a glorious ‘upbeat' to the First Sonata, finds fertile ground in Beethoven's short, motoric cells, which suit his brand of minimalism perfectly. Peter Ash, in his A Major Chase, raises even more interesting questions in his response to the Second Sonata. How could it be that a work described on publication as ‘Learned, learned, ever learned... a piling up of difficulty upon difficulty’ (Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung) can prompt a response that Ash describes as ‘Bartók meets Tom and Jerry’? These two references, updating Beethoven with their 20th century resonances, probe further: is Ash's an ‘authentic’ response at all if it is so far removed from Beethoven’s contemporary reception? Well, yes, so it seems, if latter-day interpreters are to be trusted. All of the artists that I consulted, each of whom had performed the entire cycle of sonatas, found humour to be one of the defining characteristics of this particular Beethoven work. Could it be that Beethoven’s music is funnier today than it was in 1798? Or that Beethoven’s humour resonates more in 2015 than it did when it was new to its listeners? Or perhaps we are now laughing at something else associated with Beethoven’s world and 200 years of troping and myth-making that have intervened. In any case, Ash's brilliant work, fugue and all, echoes long into the Beethoven Sonata when we play them side-by-side.
Ash is not the only one of our new composers who seizes upon Beethoven’s sense of humour. In Mehlschöberl, Jeremy Thurlow picks up on his love of puns, nicknames and linguistic games; indeed his title, a kind of savoury dumpling dish, was a term of endearment bestowed upon Beethoven by his friends.
Turning to other examples, Kurt Schwertsik writes a complex and deeply moving response to the songful and enigmatic Sixth Sonata, written when the first signs of deafness were becoming apparent and Beethoven was experiencing acute personal trauma. On The Way to Heiligenstadt uses a classic Beethovenian narrative of struggle and redemption as its programme. Judith Bingham takes the Fourth Sonata, an often angry and disturbed work, and responds with searching lyricism in The Neglected Child, a title borrowed from Lewis Lockwood, who points out how rarely this sonata is performed. Bingham's piece plays as counterpoint to Beethoven’s highly charged score, drawing out both the instability and more benevolent side within it. Matthew Taylor finds Beethoven as challenging and virtuosic as ever, writing a Tarantella Furiosa that takes the whirlwind finale of the Kreutzer Sonata and adds a turbo charge that always leaves Krysia and me out of breath by the end. The Spring Sonata’s proportional perfection and effortless melody provide inspiration for a gem from Huw Watkins and Beethoven’s mastery of formal procedure draws a response from David Matthews who, in his Sonatina, maps the structure of the last sonata in miniature. The hypnotic Air by Philip Ashworth and Elspeth Brooke’s multicoloured Swoop complete our brilliant line-up of partner pieces.
So it seems that whether via the notes on the page or the legends that surround the man, Beethoven is as inspirational a figure as ever in our postmodern age. Beethoven Plus is certainly a cycle like no other. We hope you enjoy discovering it as much as we have enjoyed performing it.
'Beethoven Plus', Vol 2 is out now on Somm Recordings. For more information, please visit somm-recordings.com