Frank-Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen eventually dispel lockdown’s emotional memories

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Frank-Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 27.10.2021. (MB)

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

The last music I heard before lockdown had been these three sonatas, performed by Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim (review here) in Berlin. This had been the last concert in a series of three, covering all ten Beethoven violin sonatas. There was, of course, very little music of any kind to be heard in the rest of 2020 and still less Beethoven. Barenboim conducting the nine symphonies, Kirill Petrenko conducting Fidelio, and so much else went by the wayside. I assume that this concert from Frank-Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen was either a (belated) conclusion to a similar series, or had been intended as such. In any case, there will always be illumination to hearing the three sonatas in question together, whether in broader Beethovenian company or not. They were, moreover, performances very different from those I had heard in Berlin, so highly emotional memories did not intrude in the way they otherwise might.

Frank-Peter Zimmermann (violin)

The first, Op.30 No.3, opened in promising fashion. Fresh, alert, energetic, it bade fair to navigate Beethoven’s tricky Classical-Romantic dialectic. And so the first movement did, in its own way, very much not an Old World way. At its best, it put me in mind of the modernist Beethoven of Michael Gielen. However, with Gielen, there was always an understanding, such as Barenboim’s, of ebb and flow founded upon harmonic rhythm. This I felt more in the recapitulation than elsewhere, which had been somewhat rigid. The second movement, here assuredly not a slow movement, was similarly swift, quite lacking in sentimentality; but was sentiment thrown out with the sentimental bathwater? At times, though the gravely beautiful turn to the minor spoke of deeper matters. Zimmermann’s vibrato was intelligently varied, telling and illustrating its own story and that story’s contours. Restless brilliance and vigour characterised the finale in both parts. It took no prisoners, but something remained missing, at least for me.

In the Kreutzer, the introductory dialogue between violin and piano was keenly delivered: serious, without being weighted down; potentiality the thing. It soon gave way, however — as had already been the case in Op.30 No.3, and as would continue to be the case in the rest of the recital — to fermata embellishment in both parts that increasingly distracted rather than illuminated. At least that my reaction; others may have felt differently. Fast and furious, not a little breathless, the first movement was, if not one-dimensional, then less multi-dimensional than ideal. So too were the earlier variations of its successor, welcome character notwithstanding, though it developed into something stronger, quite magical by its close. By the time of the finale, somewhat confrontational but perhaps none the worse for that, I had begun to tire of those interventionist interpolations. Doubtless others found them refreshing. Personal taste always plays an important role here.

The enigmatic G major sonata, Op.96 was to my mind ultimately the most successful of the three, especially once past its first movement, which would have benefited from a stronger sense of a guiding musical thread. It never quite settled, but perhaps that was the point. The Adagio espressivo did, though, and emerged both soulful and directed, ornamentation here duly expressive, even elucidatory, rather than distracting. The scherzo was similarly direct, both musicians clearly relishing its radical concision. If the finale was not entirely free of earlier fussiness, there was much to appreciate and enjoy in its variegated textures and mood swings. The closer one listened, the more one was rewarded, and the more complex Beethoven’s vision became: rather like the finale to the Eighth Symphony. Dedicated to the memory of Bernard Haitink, a ‘great friend’ to Zimmermann and Helmchen, the encore was the slow movement of the A major Sonata, Op.30 No.1.

Mark Berry

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