Is there such a thing as a Beethoven violinist?

Is there such a thing as a Beethoven violinist?


norman lebrecht

February 15, 2020

Welcome to the 33rd work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Beethoven violin sonatas 1-3, opus 12

We all know what a Beethoven pianist is. It’s someone who addresses the monumental challenge of the 32 sonatas, plus the five concertos and other occasional pieces. The piano was Beethoven’s instrument, his most direct form of communication. The pianist is his surrogate.

But the violinist? Aside from the violin concerto, which is probably the most important work of its kind, there is no Beethoven imprimatur for the instrument. True, he wrote ten sonatas for violin and piano, which is more than most composers, but they belong on the whole to an early period when he is still finding his voice. The first set of three, opus 12, which I’ll discuss in a moment, date from the 1790s ad are dedicated to Antonio Salieri, the politically manipulative composer who acted as a fixer in musical Vienna and may – mostly likely may not – have murdered Mozart. Either way it was important for Beethoven to get on the right side of him with a set of sonatas that sound as if they could have been written by Mozart.

The other influence is the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) whom Beethoven had just met, and who would go on to inspire his most celebrated sonata for violin and piano. Kreutzer was a busy teacher who favoured flashy fingerings. Beethoven was encouraged to make his sonatas hard to play The first review, in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, condemned him for ‘contrariness and artificiality’. The audience, however, responded warmly.

So what is a violinist to make of Beethoven’s first approach to the instrument?

Yehudi Menuhin, aged 13, in a 1929 recording with his sister Hephzibah, displays a syrupy tone in the first sonata that mimics the crowd-pleasing effects perfected by the older generation of Ysaye and Enesco. The tone grates on the ear as the initial charm wears off. A 1955 Abbey Road recording by Menuhin with his brother-in-law Louis Kentner is quite alarmingly tentative, questioning, two characters in search of the real Yehudi Menuhin. By 1970, when Menuhin plays with Wilhelm Kempff, he is lost, a voice in the wilderness seeking his redeemer. These sonatas bring out, better perhaps than any other music, the tragedy of Menuhin’s irresoluble self-doubt, rooted in a tormented childhood.


Joseph Szigeti, partnered by Claudio Arrau in 1944, is something else altogether. Slick and quick, they have no concern at all for Beethoven style and seem rather keen to get home for news of theD-Day landings. Arrau is an equal-rights accompanist: no violinist will ever get ahead of his piano.

Who remembers Henri Temianka? In 1946, the Scottish born, Polish-Jewish violinist played all 12 Beethoven violin sonatas with pianist Leonard Shure at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. The pianist dominates the early exchanges and the sound is borderline acceptable/execrable, but Temianka is an assured performer and these concerts were the springboard for launching an international chamber music career that last almost half a century.

Jascha Heifetz outshouted his pianists; this 1947 account with Emmanuel Bay diplays him at his worst: flawless, cold and metronimic. Not a Beethoven violinist by any imaginative stretch, just the best violinist that ever lived.

With Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil we reach a plateau of satisfaction, especially in the second sonata. A Belgian violinist who was almost as adept as a pianist, Grumiaux has a fine way of story-telling, amply matched by Haskil’s Mozartian twinkle at the piano. This reading must appear on any shortlist of recommendations.

Whispering Christian Ferras (1959) and authoritatian Wolfgang Schneiderhan (1961) subdue their tentative accompanists, as does Zino Francescatti (1965).

Itzhak Perlman’s set with Vladimir Ashkenazy (1977) was the go-to interpretation of its day. Perlman was Heifetz with central heating, and much else besides. He engaged full-on with an audience, and Ashkenazy was anything but reticent. This was late 20th-century power playing and it may never be bettered. Whether it speaks to a future generation is another matter. Both musicians have so complete a solution to the Beethoven problem, they leave listeners little room for fantasy.

The Soviets presented us with a choice of David Oistrakh or Leonid Kogan, the latter accompanied in Leningrad (1964) by his brother-in-law Emil Gilels. Grim sound, but sensational Beethoven. Oistrakh has Richter at the piano. The two violinists are natural antipodes. No critic should be forced to make such a choice.

Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich (1984) are gin and tonic, irresistible at the right time of day. Anne Sophie Mutter is next-gen Perlman (1998) but Lambert Orkis is no Ashkenazy.

Among the period-intrument pairings, Elizabeth Wallfisch with David Breitman (2012) finds an authentic-sounding domesticity, a replica of the kind of presentations that Beethoven gave in the gilded drawing rooms of his ghastly Viennese patrons, who probably chatted all the way through. Viktoria Mullova (violin, 2010) with Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano) are a lot showier, less deferential to period discourtesies.

Among 21st century practitioners, the standouts are a prizewinning performance by Yukiko Uno (violin) and Takashi Sato (piano) at the 2019 Queen Elisabeth contest in Brussels, and the elegant Isabelle Van Keulen with Hanness Minnaar in 2014. For intuitive communication, listen to Pamela Frank with her father Claude Frank in a non-commercial recording from 2011.

Final reckoning? Grumiaux, Oistrakh, Kogan, Kremer, Wallfisch, Uno, Frank.

Which of them is a Beethoven violinist? No such thing, I’m afraid.

Bonus track: Variations on national airs for flute or violin/piano, opus 105 and 107

Beethoven’s final commission from the Scottish publisher George Thomson was for a chamber setting of folk tunes from the Austrian Empire and the British Isles. He gave the publisher two options: the works can be played by either on flute or violin, with piano accompaniment. The French flute virtuoso Patrick Gallois has a lovely set with pianist Cecile Licad, while Daniel Hope is perhaps the pick of the violinists on record, with pianist Sebastian Knauer. Olli Mustonen, a Finnish pianist plays the set without a partner.

There’s no accounting for Finns.



  • Jack says:

    I still go with Grumiaux and Haskil. Those are classic accounts.

  • mikealdren says:

    How about a modern recording? Kavakos perhaps or Faust or one of the younger players like Ibragimova?

  • msc says:

    Faust and Melnikov are up there with the best. Ehnes and Armstrong are Heitetz and Bay with heart.

    • Daniel Poulin says:

      A young James Ehnes with pianist Louis Lortie played the complete set of violin and piano sonatas (plus the Trios with cellist Jan Vogler) in a Beethoven Festival in 2001 shortly after the Sept.11 tragedy in NY. Lortie also played the 32 piano sonatas. The whole festival was recorded by Radio-Canada. A memorable event.

  • Bruce says:

    “Heifetz with central heating” — that’s terrific 🙂

  • Greg Bottini says:

    No mention of Fritz Kreisler and Franz Rupp? (My favorite interpretations)
    Or Augustin Dumay and Maria Joao-Pires? (My favorite modern interpretations)
    Your survey is woefully incomplete.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      For such much-recorded music as the Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin, it is indeed a very truncated survey. Most serious record collectors for example, think of the David Oistrakh complete set featuring Lev Oborin as pianist, not a favorite of mine but it has been available for decades. I think more highly of Szigeti/Arrau than does our host, but that’s what makes a horserace. Szigeti himself referred to it as being among his “posthumous” recordings.

      But what of Szigeti/Horszowski in op. 12, no. 1? Isn’t Beethoven style to be heard there? Or in the other four Beethoven Sonatas that Szigeti recorded with Horszowski (and why didn’t Columbia have them complete the set for Pete’s sake?).

      And while opinions can fairly differ on the merits of the very young Menuhin’s tone in his 1929 recording (and his later Beethoven Sonata recordings), it is not opinion but fact that the pianist was not his then-nine year old sister Hephzibah, but Hubert Giesen, so is our host sure he was listening to the 1929 recording (Biddulph LAB 032)? Moreover, we fortunately have enough recorded evidence of how Enescu and Eugène Ysaÿe played in general, even if not in op. 12 alas, to make the “syrupy tone” and “crowd-pleasing effects” accusations wildly inapplicable to them.

      For period instrument complete sets, I’d suggest Jos van Immerseel on an 1824 Conrad Graf fortepiano with the late Jaap Schröder on a 1684 Joffredus Cappa. And interesting alternative is Julian Reynolds on a restored 1845 Peter Rosenberger piano and violinist Johannes Leertouwer playing a 1663 Jacobus Stainer which however while played with an informed sense of style does not appear to be fully “period” in outfitting. It was released on Globe.

      My set with Wolfgang Schneiderhan features Wilhelm Kempff on the piano — not a “tentative accompanist.” Nor can I perceive a whispering problem with Christian Ferras in the strong account I have of op. 23, and op 30 nos. 1 and 2 with Pierre Barbizet.

      It appears that Brigitte Engerer and Olivier Charlier never completed a set for Harmonia Mundi France — my regret being based on the qualities of their Op. 30, nos. 2 and 3 and op. 47.

      Robert Mann (of the Juilliard String Quartet of course) recorded a very impressive set with Stephen Hough.

      And the Centaur label has reissued a set with Steven Staryk and John Perry that should not be ignored.

  • Robert Levine says:

    With the exception of the violin concerto, most of the great Beethoven violin writing are in the first violin parts of the quartets. Find a quartet that plays Beethoven right, and you’ve found yourself a Beethoven violinist.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Another vote for Dumay-Pires aong with Robert Mann/Stephen Hough and individual sonatas by Vengerov, Perlman, and Kreisler/Rachmaninoff. I’ve never heard the Kreisler/Franz Rupp set that Greg Bottini likes.

    The “Kreutzer” is a study in itself.. My choice is Adolf Busch-Rudolf Serkin, with HeifetzMoiseiwitsch, Thibaud/Cortot, Szimon Goldberg/Lili Kraus, and Schneiderhan/Kempff in reserve.

    I remember a good set by Francescatti/Casadesus. The funniest is Szigeti/Horszowski in the “Spring” adagio when Szigeti gets very Hungarian with a shuddering trill any gypsy violinist or Toscha Seidel would be proud of.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Hi Edgar,
      The Kreisler/Rupp recordings I mentioned were in-print and available for about a minute on Biddulph – three separate CDs. I was fortunate to be working at Tower Records when they came into the store in a shipment of cutouts. I grabbed ’em up soonest, on the strength of loving the Kreisler/Rachmaninoff Op. 30/3 and the fact that Kreisler is my favorite violinist anyway.
      They are really worth hunting down.
      At this point it bears mentioning that I myself have a steadfast rule when it comes to buying used, rare, or out-of-print records, CDs, books, DVDs, etc.: I will never pay more than the amount the item sold for when it was new. I’ve never broken that rule.
      I really hope you find those Kreislers, though.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Thanks, Greg, a good rule. I’ll manage somehow to hear Kreisler and Franz Rupp, who mentions them in his published memoir. I also meant to name Bronislaw Hubermann and Ignaz Friedmann’s “Kreutzer” among my reserves.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      The Kreisler/Rupp “Spring” and “Kreutzer” sonatas from the complete set have been reissued many times, but the set as a whole has many virtues.

      Bronislaw Huberman also recorded the “Kreutzer” Sonata with Siegfried Schultze on piano. It is a “late” acoustical recording, and many find extended listening to instrumental acoustics to be a something of a trial. It is somewhat more disciplined and mainstream in style than the electrical sides with Ignazy Friedman, which has to rank as one of the most exciting recordings of anything ever made. Huberman is an acquired taste, but once acquired, you want more, including his 1899 Berliners.

      There is a recording of the “Kreutzer” (with the “Spring”) that might not make anybody’s list but is different and so interesting. Anthony Newman on fortepiano and Evan Johnson on a period violin. What sets it apart is that Johnson plays with nearly no vibrato, except now and then for expressive effect, and both musicians add improvisation, in particular Johnson adds an embellishment at the very place where it is known Bridgetower did at the premiere – the famous spot where Beethoven jumped up from the piano bench and embraced the violinist. It was issued on Newport Classics. Do you remember when compact discs, and disc players, not only featured “tracks” by numbers but also “index” points? This CD was the most indexed in my experience. The “Kreutzer” alone has 35 index points: variations, themes, expositions, developments, recapitulations, codas. A scholar’s delight.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Hi David,
        Yes, I do remember index points on CDs.
        But my state-of-the-cheap CD player of that brief era had a small readout that did not indicate those points, so I missed out on the usefulness of those indexes.
        As to the main subject at hand, Huberman may very well be an an acquired taste, but I have acquired that taste. The recording you mention of the Kreutzer with Schultze is excellent, and anyone who is accustomed to listening to “historical” records (and after all, aren’t all recordings “historical”?) shouldn’t be troubled by the sound. I have not heard the sides with Ignazy Friedman.
        I like the Szigeti/Arrau set very much; two brilliant musicians at the top of their game.

  • Egar Self says:

    Mr. Nelson, many thanks for your further comments and recommendations. I admire Hubermann and like his Beethoven concerto with Szell and the VPO above all others. HMV recorded it midnights in Vienna, after Szell was through for the day at Prague Opera and took the train to Vienna. Hubermann would collapse on a couch after each four-minute take until the next master was ready, but the recording is nearly seamless, the splendid Vienna Philharmonic five-string basses much in evidence, also their sour oboe, as both are two years later in Bruno Walter’s live Mahler. They were good years.

    I have also Hubermann’s early “Kreutzer” with Siegfried Borries. I also like Friedmann, from his Grieg concerto with Philippe Gaubert to the famous Chopin mazurkas and back again, pausing at Chopin’s second Impromptu. Friedmann’s friend and fanatical admirer the American pianist Nathan Fryer lived in Carmel and was happy to discuss Friedmann on my visits there to Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House.

    the “Kreutzer” is a problem for me; I always imagine it played a little better than any performance or record I’ve heard. I almost blame Beethoven, but the fault likely is mine. How pleasant to speculate about these things!