Beethoven, Szymanowski and Schumann: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin) Piotr Anderszewski (piano) Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Sala Sinopoli, Parco della Musica, Rome, 8.4.2011 (JB)
Isaac Babel made the insightful observation that if the world itself could write, it would write like Tolstoy. There are moments in his music when I would like to add: and compose like Beethoven. It is rare when Beethoven strikes these moments, but when he does, they are remarkable. One of them is at the opening of the Spring Sonata. It sounds like Beethoven pulled this out of thin air and then merely provided the notation; that haunting melody, so effortless that surely no one could have “composed” it, creeps up on the ear as though it had always been there. Grace and charm are not usually characteristics associated with Beethoven, yet here they are at the fore of all four movements. There is an effortlessness which underscores the sonata. And that is as far removed from late Beethoven as you can get. Of course, the seeming ease conceals a formidably assured technique. The same must be true of the performers if the sonata is to function as chamber music, not as a violin and piano playing together, but as a duo: in the best performances, the intimacy between the two instruments comes across as one.
Some readers will be familiar with the recording of another Beethoven, live from Carnegie Hall by Kreisler and Rachmaninoff, in which the pianist sounds as though he is chasing the violinist and never quite managing to catch up. Great as both performers are, they are not a duo. Their individual virtuosity is unmistakably in evidence but this is as far away from chamber music as you can get.
The Sala Sinopoli at Rome’s Parco della Musica seats twelve hundred, with about a thousand present last night. The acoustic is perfect. Even so, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Piotr Anderszewski took a risk in playing this sonata with a breathtaking intimacy; a real feat of chamber music. Both are acknowledged virtuosos, but both of them put this aside, playing to one another with such a sense of ensemble that they sometimes sounded like one instrument. This is how chamber music ought to be played. And it almost never is. It was as though those in the audience were able to listen in to the most intimate, supreme, privately construed dialogue of two extraordinary musicians. Beethoven, of course, has a major hand in helping this.
Yes, the melody is in the piano part here, but would you please not give it all that it’s worth, said Vera Kantrovich, my chamber music tutor of half a century ago, but listen to what Beethoven has given the accompanying violin. When you do this, you will play what you rightly consider to be a solo bit in a different way. I did. Duos are all about listening to one another. Not about playing to an audience. That must be coincidental. The Zimmermann / Anderszewski duo have absorbed Miss Kantrovich’s lesson better than any other I have heard. The audience had a genuine feeling of eavesdropping. So beautifully focused on each other’s sounds were the players that they even appeared surprised to notice that there was an audience at the end of the sonata! You cannot get better chamber music than that.
The interplay between the two instruments was even more in evidence in the three short movements that make up Szymanowski’s “Myths”. It was a pleasure to hear this piece, for me, for the first time. Three mythical characters provide the inspiration for the movements: Arethusa’s fountain, Narcissus, and Dryad and Pan. Szymonowski is an unashamed romantic, but one who mischievously enjoys making what might be termed idiosyncratic “spelling mistakes” in that familiar musical language. The mythological starting points provide appropriate opportunities for such mischief. It calls for players who know how to have fun in their performance. And the Zimmermann / Anderszewski duo certainly involved us in their fun. And once more, they did this with such grace as to appear not to make any effort doing it.
There was a change of style after the interval for the Schumann D minor sonata. There was less attention to ensemble playing, but in all fairness, that was more the fault of the composer than the players. So little real opportunity in such a piece for such an outstanding duo. Their amazing talents would have been much better served by the Franck sonata.