BEETHOVEN Sonatas for Fortepiano and Violin Vol 4
Duncan Druce was troubled by ‘the lack of any really soft playing’ in the first volume of Susanna Ogata and Ian Watson’s survey of Beethoven’s violin sonatas (9/15). I have a similar reaction to this final instalment. There’s the occasional passage where the duo’s brawny approach is effective, as in the development section of the Third Sonata’s opening movement, with its churning figuration and walloping accents (listen from 4'35"). But so much of Op 12’s sly humour and spry lyricism is conveyed confidentially, or through dramatic dynamic gradations and contrasts. The rollicking finale of that E flat major Sonata, for instance, is supposed to start at a grinning piano but Ogata and Watson pay no heed and guffaw from the get-go in a hearty forte. They stomp blithely through the first movement of the Second Sonata, too, putting stress on the each of main beats of the duple metre, thus spoiling the music’s intricate and ingeniously witty rhythmic irregularities. Their not-so-vivacious Allegro vivace doesn’t help matters; but turn to the new Somm recording, where Krysia Osostowicz and Daniel Tong are beguilingly coquettish at a nearly identical tempo.
Indeed, Osostowicz and Tong’s interpretative style – patient, affectionate, warmly conversational, sensitive to harmonic detail – reminds me of Schneiderhan and Kempff’s classic mid-’50s set (DG, 12/00). They may sound distinctly old-fashioned compared with the dashing brilliance of Faust and Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi, 10/10), say, but these are thoroughly engaging performances. The whole of Op 12 abounds with freshness and fun. In the volatile A minor Sonata, Op 23, Osostowicz and Tong hold urgency and charm in careful balance. Only the duo’s fussy, comparatively awkward account of the Spring Sonata disappoints, but happily they’re back on form in a mercurial and often exhilarating reading of Op 30 No 3.
Somm is releasing Osostowicz and Tong’s cycle in two generously filled two-disc volumes, and each of the six sonatas here is accompanied by a newly composed ‘companion’ piece, hence the title ‘Beethoven Plus’. It’s not a novel concept, admittedly – Mariss Jansons did something similar in his 2012 symphony cycle with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra – but is illuminating nonetheless. Most of the contemporary works serve as preludes. Jonathan Dove’s Ludwig Games, for instance, is a minimalist toccata whose final cadence segues seamlessly into Op 12 No 1. Some works seem to inhabit worlds far removed from Beethoven’s yet ultimately prove to be suitable foils, like the obsessive birdsong of Elspeth Brooke’s Swoop prefacing Op 12 No 3. Judith Bingham’s deeply melancholic The Neglected Child is the only postlude (for Op 23), and thus sits next to Huw Watkins’s elegiac Spring (for Op 24, obviously); as it happens, the two are perhaps more complementary to each other than to their Beethovenian inspirations.
The recordings were made live in the new Cedars Hall at Wells Cathedral School; and, while I’m normally not a fan of retaining applause on a recording, it feels right here. I even found myself tickled to share the audience’s audible delight at the magical way Osostowicz and Tong play the end of Op 12 No 2. I think I may have sighed with pleasure myself.