Fine Berlin anniversary tribute to Beethoven and Isaac Stern from Zukerman and Barenboim

10/03/2020

GermanyGermany Beethoven: Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Daniel Barenboim (piano). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 8.3.2020. (MB)

Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim © Monika Rittershaus

Beethoven – Violin Sonata No.8 in G major, Op.30 No.3; Violin Sonata No.9 in A minor/major, Op.47, ‘Kreutzer’; Violin Sonata No.10 in G major, Op.96

All good things must come to an end. So it was with Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zukerman’s anniversary-year survey of the Beethoven violin sonatas, in which the final three sonatas offered a richer selection of stylistic and emotional contrast than any yet heard. A fine tribute, then, to Isaac Stern on his centenary.

The first movement of the Op.30 No.3 Sonata was taken faster than I can recall. It never sounded merely fast, though, but impetuous, even tiggerish. Occasional initial smudges, vanished in any case on the exposition repeat, mattered not at all; the spirit was there and was what counted. This was, moreover, a true partnership, bringing out such musical meaning in what might appear on the page, at least to dull souls, mere scales and arpeggios. The development, over before we knew it, had nevertheless changed everything, change which continued throughout the recapitulation. Such freshness was followed by quiet, transformative confidence in the second movement, assuredly ‘molto moderato e grazioso’. It sang with neither need nor desire to exaggerate, Beethoven and his performers able both to emulate Mozart without anxiety of influence, yet also to remain entirely true to themselves. The finale, whilst recognisably in the first movement’s line, proved both grander and more skittish, following the dictates of the material yet transforming them into musical narration.

The eloquence of opening statements, violin and piano, minor and major, offered an exposition to an exposition for the first movement of the Kreutzer. The exposition proper hurtled forward, not always note-perfect in the piano part – but then, neither is Bartók, in his extraordinary recording with Szigeti – yet again with the crucial spirit far too often lacking in contemporary Beethoven. Humanism defiant and unapologetic is what we need, just as much as Beethoven; humanism defiant and unapologetic is what we had, in a performance that had one on the edge of one’s seat, in a good way. It developed, with all that that properly entailed. And it had a scale, a stature, quite different from anything we had heard previously. The slow movement, leisurely yet directed, felt just right: it had space, yet not too much. Within its overall frame, further transformations could unfold: of tempo, melody, rhythm, and ultimately of harmony too. Each variation had its own world, clearly related to and dependent on the whole, yet pointed with individual character. With the minore variation, pathos was felt as necessity, Beethoven’s Mozartian – and Bachian – lessons well learned indeed. The fourth variation immediately following conveyed a sense of wonder, of having passed beyond to a pastoral idyll. Everything was there, so long as one listened in the fullest sense of the word. The finale offered a fine sense of tonal ambiguity. Which mode would win out? This was a battle to be won, no fait accompli. Rhetoric was founded on harmony, not some strange sort of free-floating thing-in-itself, as some would have you believe. With Beethoven, only connect.

The tenth and final sonata, Op.96 in G major, is not heard often enough. I am not sure that it could ever be heard enough, not in this fallen world anyway. From the outset, its greater subtlety and complexity registered: never forbidding, but inviting. Barenboim and Zukerman led us by the hand through a first movement whose developmental mastery is so perfect it almost ceases in itself to register. On the cusp of what we know as late Beethoven, it suggests – and certainly did so here – other possibilities, other pathways: related, yet not necessarily quite the same as those eventually travelled. There was no need to display anything on the sleeve, whether here or in the Adagio espressivo. Yet the more one was drawn in, the closer one listened, the more radical the scope and peculiarities of the harmonic field Beethoven and his performers mapped out. Concentration and contrasts in the scherzo came close to suggesting presentiments of Webern. The final movement, then, acted not only as a finale to this sonata but to the series as a whole. It united so many earlier tendencies, introducing a few more for good measure, in a dialectical fashion it was ultimately futile not to think of as ‘late’. Further complications proved as pleasurable as they were necessary. Heroism and mastery take many forms, both in work and performance.

Mark Berry

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