Beethoven’s sonata for the excluded

Welcome to the 40th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Sonata for violin and piano no 9, opus 47, ‘Kreutzer sonata’

On the morning of April 16, 1803, Beethoven bumped into a visiting aristocrat and his physician on a Vienna street and invited them to join him at a a rehearsal of one of his early sonatas that had been transcribed for string quartet. ‘We met a number of the best musicians gathered together,’ wrote the doctor, ‘such as the violinists Krumbholz, Möser (of Berlin), the mulatto Bridgethauer who in London had been in the service of the Prince of Wales.’

This is the first known appearance in Beethoven’s life of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, a half-Caribbean, half-German violinist. His father, who claimed to be an African prince sold into slavery, was a valet in the Esterhazy household where Haydn was a musician. George, born in 1778, was taken at nine years old to perform (like little Mozart) in Paris and London, where the Prince of Wales (later George IV) took a liking to him and paid for his volin lessons. Aged 23 or 24 he set off on a European concert tour, arriving in Vienna as the tress were coming into bloom.

He must have been the first person that Beethoven met who was of African origin and the composer liked him on sight. After playing a few pieces together he composed a violin-piano sonata, using a movement he had written the year before as a finale and adding other bits up to the last minute. ‘Bridgetower had to play the marvellously theme and variations in F from Beethoven’s manuscript at the concert,’ we are told, over the shoulder of the composer, who played the piano part. In the midst of the premiere, Beethoven jumped up from the piano stool and cried ‘Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch (once more, my dear boy!)’ holding down a piano pedal while the violinist repeated a passage at bar 18. We have this reminiscence from Bridgetower’s undated inscription in Beethoven’s original manuscript. At the end of the concert, Beethoven gave Bridgetower his tuning fork (now in the British Library) and named the sonata after him, but the mutual delight did not last much longer.

The pair went off to a bar where, after a few drinks, Bridgetower made a disparaging remark about the morals of a girl whom Beethoven loved. The composer took offence and struck Bridgetower’s name off the dedication page of the new sonata, replacing it with that of the bland French violinist Rudolph Kreutzer. Bridgetower returned to England, earned a music degree at Cambridge, married a London girl and lived to the age of 81, regretting to the end of his days the drunken remark that cost him a place in posterity. Was there any racial predujice in Beethoven’s over-reaction? Given his choleric nature, probably not. He regularly cut off relations with people who said the wring thing.

The so-called Kreutzer Sonata went on to become one of Beethoven’s most popular parlour works, commemorated by Leo Tolstoy as the title of a novella of sexual envy and by Leos Janacek as an extra-marital string quartet.

The sonata does not, for the most part, display Beethoven at his best. The finale is barely fit for purpose and the opening movement is soupy to a fault. It is in the central theme-and-variations which Bridgetower so enjoyed that the work transcends its outer limitations, achieving a form of communication betwen the two soloists that somehow draws in the audience as a third party. It’s a remarkably interactive work.

Among 100 recordings, Jascha Heifetz and Brook Smith set a cracking speed which conjures up the improvisatory genesis of the piece and sets the bar so high that few can match it. Heifetz often gave the impression of finding Beethoven too easy. His lack of awe is somehow apt for the Kreutzer Sonata. This ranks as my benchmark recording against which others are measured.

Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot, recorded in the Salle Pleyel in May 1929, go for a more contemplative conversation, respectful, wistful, almost a dissertation on the nature of friendship. Yehudi Menuhin and his sister Hephzibah (1934) are showy, squeaky and immature.

The first truly indispensable recording is the one made at the Library of Congress in Washington DC on April 13, 1940, by two Hungarian musicians of uneven temperament, the violinist Josef Szigeti and the pianist and composer Bela Bartók . Szigeti had already left his homeland as a political exile, and Bartok was about to do the same, settling in New York in October that year. Their Congressional recital consisted of Bartok’s second sonata (1922), the Debussy sonata (1917) and Beethoven’s Kreutzer. In the last half-minute of the opening movement, there is a whispering hush of alienation and displacement that no-one else has ever found so emphtically in the score. Bartók is revealed as a pianist of both sensitive alertness and deep introspection. One hardly dares breathe through the whole of this performance.

Of the many estimable pairings in this work, Schneiderhan-Kempff, Oistrakh-Oborin, Grumiaux-Clara Haskil and Szeryng-Rubinstein set the tone in the 1950s and 1960s. Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy (1974) lead the way for the next generation. The incomparable Nathan Milstein performed it in the last recital of his life in Stockholm in July 1986, with Georg Pludermacher at the piano. At 82 years old his technique is unimpaired and his expression uplifting. He once told me that he never gave more than 30 concerts a year in his life, in order always to bring something fresh to hs public. I attended his farewell tour that year and will never forget his joy at playing, or his willingness to play encores so long as there was still one hand clapping.

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  • Ramesh Nair says:

    ‘The opening movement is soupy to a fault’? Really? Surely more like a few cans of Red Bull.

    The Huberman/Friedman studio recording of 1930 has to be one of the top contenders. Fiery and improvisational in almost every section of the work, with Huberman’s tonal palette and variety of bowings palpable despite the limited recording quality. Warner/EMI’s 2017 remastering is improved on their earlier efforts, even if they are generous on the filtering algorithms in order to deliver quiet product.

    If you can find it, a Universal Japan SACD offers a Kreutzer from Heifetz and Bay from 1954, recorded with what seems to be a small but quiet audience. It sounds more spontaneous and vibrant than his RCA studio recording.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    ==[Beethoven] regularly cut off relations with people who said the wrong thing.

    Yes, he was the Benjamin Britten of his day

  • Hedgehog says:

    Thanks for the fascinating background story.

    Yes to Oistrakh-Oborin and Grumiaux-Haskil.

    Benchmark Bronislaw Hubberman and Ignaz Friedman (Naxos, or better still Pristine).

    Surely outstanding moderns from Ibragimova-Tiberghien and Faust-Melnikov.

  • Tully Potter says:

    A very sketchy overview of recordings of the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata. Not mentioned are Huberman-Friedman, Busch-Serkin (two versions), Kogan-Ginsburg and the best of the Heifetz versions, the first of two he made with Moiseiwitsch (it was unissued because typically Heifetz thought the piano was too audible, but the pianist’s test pressings survived to be released by APR). A host of others include several featuring Argerich – those with Perlman and Repin come to mind.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      I am confused about the origin of this statement (which I have seen elsewhere) that Heifetz rejected release of his monaural recording of the Kreutzer with Benno Moiseiwitsch. In the USA it was issued on RCA Victor LM 1193 (and the cover art was of the style suggesting that Victor also issud it on 45 rpm); in the U.K. it was issued on HMV ALP 1093. These are well known old LPs. Or is Tully Potter referring to yet another go at the Kreutzer with Moiseiwitsch?

      Heifetz was, according to Victor’s Charles O’Connell, fully capable of unreasonably withholding his approval of a good recording (giving the example of the Sibelius Concerto with Stokowski and Philadelphia), but Heifetz clearly approved at least some version of the Kreutzer with Moiseiwitsch.

      And let me put in a word for the “bland” Rudolphe Kreutzer, who wins no points for showing so little interest in the work that makes his name live on. In the right hands (so, NOT Jack Benny) even some of the 42 etudes are musical gems. And when my violin teacher found a stash of old, old sheet music and we struggled (OK, I struggled) through the Concertos Nos. 13 and 19 — these are NOT bland. They are minefields. Sharks teeth.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Very interesting story.

    That Beethoven was not racist, will come as an unpleasant surprise to a lot of people today who prefer to see the authors of the ‘canonical’ repertoire as remnants of authoritarian, undemocratic, patriarchal minorities-unfriendly times.

    • Matt D says:

      Well of course LvB wasn’t racist. He was black himself! They called him the “Black Spaniard” in Vienna. He had dark skin and wild hair. This was obviously due to Spain and its Moors ruling parts of the Netherlands for so long. Some horny Moor came along to breed a Brabant farm girl.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That might have been the case, one could think. However, it is MOST unlikely:

        “This article assesses the longstanding myths and debates surrounding the supposed African ancestry of German Romantic composer Ludwig van Beethoven. It argues that the “blackwashing” of Beethoven against all historical likelihood is a failed attempt at historical revisionism—while endeavoring to claim Beethoven’s genius as a testament to black accomplishment, this recycled and unfounded factoid has had the adverse effect of obscuring the careers and contributions of actual black composers, including Joseph Boulogne de Saint-Georges, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still. Moreover, this tendency to cast Beethoven as African is mirrored by frequent attempts to “whitewash” the reputations of African-descended composers by referring to them by the names of their white contemporaries (e.g. Black Mozart, Black Mahler). I further suggest that, in order to resolve these conundrums, the classical music canon must be reimagined with race at its center.”

        https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17167/

        • Matt D says:

          Believe me, I agree! I am amazed that some actually argue Beethoven was black. These people ignore that the Iberian Moors were eclipsed by the late 12th Century, all but eliminated from Iberia by the late 15th Century, and played no role in the formation or governance of the Spanish Netherlands.

          I have even heard arguments that LvB’s life-mask is proof that he was black as it shows black features. This is nonsense! Unsurprisingly, the life-mask looks just like the most famous paintings, which in my opinion resemble many modern-day Dutch and Belgian faces I have seen, especially the shape of his eyes.

  • My Kingdom for a Kreutzer says:

    If the first movement sounds or is played ‘soupy’ then they haven’t done it correctly. The first movement alone is one of the pinnacles of Beethoven’s output. The Theme and Variations is exquisite, to be sure, but nothing can rival the drama and passionate thrill of the first movement, which also has one of the most impressive and complex developments in his entire œuvre. It should be fiery, impassioned, verging on the brink of madness before the calm serenity of the variations. The third movement, admittedly, feels misplaced. A wonderful piece that almost wants to be a tarantella but somehow doesn’t quite fit with the rage and ravish of the previous two movements…but maybe that’s what it needs to be, something lilting and joyous to balance what came before.

    You egregiously omit the most exciting of all recordings: Josef Suk and Jan Panenka. This is my benchmark recording. If the violin does not sound at once demonic and heavenly, as though the strings are going to snap and the bow fraying at every triple stop, with all the tension of the world in its grip, the piano a tumultuous ocean raging and boiling beneath, it’s probably not worth listening to and, again, misses the point entirely.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Adolf Busch-Rudolf Serkin and Szymon Goldberg-Lili Kraus sound best to me. The “Kreutzer” has been well-served by duos Szigeti-Bartok, Thibaud-Cortot, Heifetz-Moiseiwitsch, Hubermann-Friedmann, and Busch-Serkin. I’ve never heard Kreisler-Rupp or Szering-Rubinstein and would like to.

    A telling point is the end of the variations, where slow arpeggii from piano and violin delightfully meet and kiss from opposite directions. Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin get this just right.

    If only Gioconda de Vito and Edwin Fischer had recorded it as well as they did Brahms’s G-major “Regen” sonata is.

    the finale is a tarantella, very exciting from Hubermann and Friedmann. Each version has something to offer — Beethoven sees to that — and Goldberg/Kraus succeed as well as ay. It’s startling to hear Szigeti and Bartok, who was quite a pianist and had been in the country only a few days when they performed it at the Library of Congress with two Bartok works and Debussy’s sonata.

    Of modern versions I’ve liked two Austrians on Camerata, and Vengero. Hasn’t Fazil Say also recorded it, with I forget which violinist?

    Bronislaw Hubermann and Bruno Walter once played it for Thomas Mann on his birthday at his home in Pacific Palisades. “Not everyone has such a nice birthday present,” Mann wrote a friend.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Excellent choices, Edgar.
      May I add Szigeti/Arrau, Oistrakh/Oborin, and Dumay/Joao-Pires to your list?

      • Edgar Self says:

        Glad to have them, Greg. I have Szigeti/Arrau and Dumay/Pires and should have mentioned them. I’ve ot heard Oistrakh Sr. There are just too many good versions.

    • Hedgehog says:

      Fasil Say has indeed recorded it with Patricia Kopatchinskaja no less on Naive. This is as wild and crazy as you could expect – fabulously thrilling. The bonus on the album is the Bartok Romanian Dances – utterly inimitable and played with a naturalness and freedom I have never heard elsewhere. Great stuff! Not many people know about this.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Must confess I am deeply puzzled with the remark that the sonata does not show Beethoven at his best. What does the man want? Blood? Always been a favourite with me but then perhaps I am easily pleased.
    Mind you, if Heifetz / Smith version was the standard I would be less enthusiastic. The piano is nowhere. The sonatas are for piano and violin in that order. Agreed about the Heifetz / Moiseiwitsch version which is vastly superior to the version with Smith as the piano is far more prominent. That really is a benchmark – a pianist who was not intimidated by Heifetz. The versions featuring Argerich include superb renderings with Perlman, Repin and Kremer. Why no mention of them?

  • Jazzotter says:

    I’d like to propose an Honorable Mention to the 1982 recording with Uto Ughi and Wolfgang Sawallisch.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    I certainly agree about the last movement.
    It does feel out of place.

  • Harry Collier says:

    Glad to see someone else shares my view that the Kreutzer sonata is not Beethoven at his best. The finale, in particular, quickly outstays its welcome. The Kreutzer and the Spring are probably the most often programmed of the 10. But then, they have names, and the magnificent Op 96 in G major does not.

  • Edgar Self says:

    thanks, Hedgehog, for confirming Kopatchinskaya’s recording with Fazil Say, and to Jazzotter for mentioning Uto Ughi’s with Wolfgang Sawallisch. Ughi’s solo Bach works are also a top choice.

    I guess we have to mention Tolstoy’s story called “Kreutzer Sonata”, which I don’t much like and can’t even remember the events of, or what it has to do with the sonata.

  • esfir ross says:

    I play piano part of op.30#3 violin sonata. I’m intrigue with dedication to tzar Alexsandre I. He came to throne 1801-sonatas was written 1802 and all 3 of op. 30 LvB dedicated to this tzar. What’s the story behind it, maybe friendship with count Razumovsky?

  • Edgar Self says:

    confession, and a final Kreutzer word for me. I guiltily sypathise with others critical of the work, granted that we are only worms to criticise Beethoven. It’s never quite clicked for me, and it’s not among my favourite Beethoven works, although I love it and can still imagine a better ideal performance than any I’ve heard. We take what is offered, and what we can get, and are very lucky to have it. But, still, … And I’ve given up trying to hold Beethoven responsible for what is no doubt my own fault or deficiency.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Another final after-thought, with a nod to Epimetheus, brother to Prometheu’ss forethought. Vengerov’s fine pianist in his “Kreeutzer” i Alexander Markovitch on Teldec. And the two excellent Viennese players so marvelously recorded on Caamerata are Volkhard Steude and Roland Batik, Boesendorfer.

    “Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.” — ThomasMann, who should know.

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