Who masters the 10th sonata?

Welcome to the 98th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Beethoven: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 10 in G major op. 96

There is a gap of ten years between Beethoven’s ninth sonata for violin and piano, known as the Kreutzer, and his tenth and last composition in this form, which a publisher called The Cockrow (but no-one else does).

By the time the tenth was performed in 1816, the world had changed. Napoloen was defeated. Europe had settled into its old torpor, Haydn was dead and Beethoven had nothing left to prove. He stood unchallenged as the foremost living composer, pushing boundaries with almost every work, in thrall to no rules except his own.

This may help expain why the tenth sonata is the most relaxed and appealing of the set, demanding less of its performers than others and finding an easy appeal with listeners. Beethoven was in accommodating mode, telling the Archduke Rudolph that ‘I have not hurried unduly to compose the last movement as, in view of (Pierre) Rode’s playing, I have had to give thought to the composition of this movement. In our finales we like to have fairly noisy passages, but R does not care for them – and so I have been rather hampered.’ He did not seem to mind. This is as cheerful as Beethoven gets.

Yet as he shared these confidences with Rudolph, his pupil and patron, he could hardly leave the house for chest and stomach pains and was plunged into mourning by the death of his brother, which was followed by all-consuming custody war over his nephew, a preoccupation that muted his creative urges for the next four years. Everything in his life was falling to pieces, yet all in the sonata is in perfect order. The sonata has four movements and lasts around 27 minutes. It stands apart from the rest of the set.

As befits a standalone sonata, there is a standalone recording for each decade of the 20th century. Yehudi Menuhin with his sister Hephzibah dominates not just the rest of the field in 1940 but his accompanist as well, barely letting Hephzibah lead where she ought to or determine a phrase that is rightfully hers. He is a controlling brother. But this is Yehudi at his peak, before he suffered confidence loss and technical doubts, and his playing here is serenity itself. Hephzibah was not in the same class as an artist or a personality. It may be that she was too timid to speak up. Those who only heard Menuhin’s post-War will struggle to reconcile his mastery here with the havering that followed.

In 1952, Jascha Heifetz is unsurpassable, his tone a shade less polished than Menuhin’s but his articulation so easy you’d think he could play the music twice as fast, or even backwards. The accompanist, Emanuel Bay, is allowed enough just room to hang his coat in RCA’s Hollywood studio.

The Sixties belong to David Oistrakh – whether the playful Paris session with Lev Oborin, or the fiercer Moscow recording in bleaker sound with Sviatoslav Richter, who was never a backseat driver. The interplay between these two is joyous and unpredictable. Richter begins the slow movement as if he has no intention of ever allowing the violinist back into the picture; what ensues is a game of musical chess, full of swift moves and stunning swoops. Neither says, ‘after you – no, after you.’

Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy in 1977 threaten to put everyone else out of business. Perlman, at 32 years old, has the warmest tone on earth and a hair’s breadth precision in his phrasing and dynamics. I’m not sure he ever sounded better. Ashkenazy, a conductor by temperament, is prepared to let the violinist hold centre-stage without, however, yielding an inch of his own space. This is a marvellous dialogue, an exemplary masterclass in chamber music. Could anyone surpass it?

Nobody in the 1980s, or even the early 1990s. But from 1994 to the present day Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich own the piece. Kremer, drier than Perlman while cerebrally more incisive, is guided softly but firmly by the ethereal Argerich, who seems to receive her interpretations from angels on high. For multi-sensual and dimensional pleasure, this is like watching Roger Federer play Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, each a champion on his own side of the net, yet each dependent on the other to return as good as he gets.

The 21st century has yet to displace this pair. Over the past generation there has been a catastrophic decline in violinists of strong character, with Anne-Sophie Mutter a commanding presence at the centre and none coming close to her hegemony. Mutter, who recorded this sonata in 1998 with her regular partner Lambert Orkis, steams through it like a Mercedes on the autobahn, barely raising a quiver in passengers or passing cars and leaving no lasting impression. The Frenchman Renaud Capucon is elegance exemplified in a 2010 recording with Frank Braley at the piano, but he lacks power and penetration. The world awaits the next big violinist. It has been kept waiting far too long.

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  • Please don’t refer to the pianist in this work as an “accompanist.” Beethoven himself titled the work Sonata for Piano and Violin.

    • Indeed.

      Separately, Perlman was 30 and Ashkenazy 38 when their Kingsway Hall recording was made in Nov. 1975.

  • ==Jascha Heifetz crossing swords with the young Itzhak Perlman

    No, not Perlman. Isn’t is Eric Friedman ?

  • A great pleasure to read this, my last reading for the night.
    I look forward to a listening from the beginning to the end!
    Thanks again.
    My premier English language read, and a new, if distanced, family.

  • It’s Oistrakh-Oborin all the way, for me. “Playful” gets it almost right; “joyful,” finding sheer joy in recreating the music, hits the spot — as does their performance.

  • The picture is Jascha Heifetz and Erick Friedman. While it is incorrectly identified on YouTube, and also here, a violinist playing while standing could not be Itzhak Perlman.

  • “Accompanist”?? Seriously? Maybe for Sarasate that moniker is warranted, but considering Beethoven originally listed these works as being for “Klavier und Violine” that’s an inaccurate way to describe the role of the pianist in this work.

    Although it’s not a studio recording, I would have mentioned Szigeti/Schnabel for one of the earlier choices. It’s certainly the first great collaborative version that’s come down to us, and far eclipses the Menuhins.

  • Where to begin?
    What about starting with the fact that neither Kreisler/Rupp, Szigeti/Arrau, or Dumay/Pires were even mentioned in this, the most recent episode of the allegedly serious “Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition”?
    Then let’s continue (shall we?) with some arrant nonsense about the Menuhins: “Yehudi Menuhin with his sister Hephzibah dominates not just the rest of the field in 1940 but his accompanist as well, barely letting Hephzibah lead where she ought to or determine a phrase that is rightfully hers (….) Hephzibah was not in the same class as an artist or a personality.”
    Bollocks!! Hephzibah was every bit the artist her brother was; her art was more subtle, that’s all. And she was quite a strong – yet sensitive – accompanist. Actually *listening* to the recording would confirm that. If Yehudi didn’t exist she would have had an excellent career as either a soloist or an accompanist. (Any of her recordings, with or without her brother, bear this out.)
    And as much as I admire and cherish many things the great Anne-Sophie Mutter has recorded (two cases in point: her Beethoven concerto with HvK and her self-conducted Mozart concerti, both on DGG, are absolutely top-drawer), she was light-years away from being “a commanding presence at the centre and none coming close to her hegemony” in terms of her recordings of the Beethoven sonatas with Orkis. Those are a case study in willful, stylistically unaware self-indulgence.
    When they were first issued, I acquired them with much anticipation; but after a few listenings, with my stomach becoming increasingly queasy from hearing all the coy slips and slides and the fussy note-by-note dynamic adjustments, I got rid of them.

    • Thank you SO much for you response about Hephzibah Menuhin. She was a great artist and anyone who heard her or were lucky enough to be in any contact with her will say the same.

      • You’re welcome, Delphine….
        She WAS a great artist, and should be recognized as such.
        And if you heard her or were in contact with her, I am envious.
        – regards, Greg

    • Thank you for speaking about Hephzibah Menuhin. She was quite an artist with a strong artistic personality. I attended the three concerts in London when Yehudi and Hephzibah performed all 10 Beethoven Sonatas in the late 60s. Mr. Menuhin was not at his best technically at that time but he still gave inspiring performances. And Hephzibah was quite a performer with plenty of personality and passion.

      • You’re welcome, Kypros!
        I am a great admirer of Yehudi’s art, but I am also a great admirer of Hephzibah’s. They complimented each other, and I believe Yehudi would not have attained his great career without the steadfast collaboration and emotional support of his loving sister, a superb artist in her own right.
        I wish I had a chance to hear Hephzibah in person; sadly for me, I never did. She died much too young, that’s for sure.
        I heard Yehudi play during the dedication week of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco in 1980. He played the Bach Double Violin Concerto with the SF Sym.’s then concertmaster, Ray Kobler.
        Yehudi, then in his late 60s, simply took Kobler to school. Yehudi’s tone and phrasing were big and all-encompassing, and he filled the hall with musical beauty. Kobler’s tone, in contrast, was small and scrawny, and he seemed lost, a little boy among men.
        The cream will always rise to the top….
        – best wishes from San Francisco, Greg

  • Who was fortunate enough to listen to the duo Franco Gulli-Enrica Cavalli would surely say they magnificently mastered all Beethoven Sonatas with equal musicianship, one only voice.

  • My favorite recording among the “oldies”- not mentioned here- is the one with Grumiaux and Haskil (I am not sure if it is currently available in streaming services), a very decent mono recording. Chamber music making at it’s very best.

    Among 21st century recordings- I would Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov for the very same reason.

  • Busch and Serkin (two recordings), Francescatti and Casadesus, Oistrakh and Oborin (two recordings, live and studio), Perlman and Ashkenazy, Dumay and Pires.

  • Mr. Lebrecht, the ending photo is Jascha but not Itzhak, that is Erick Friedman during the sessions of Jascha’s televised masterclasses.

    And have you been careful in your use of ‘accompanist’? I hardly think anyone would call the pianist in a Beethoven duo and accompanist in 2020, unless passively describing an ensemble’s hierarchy.

  • It is a pity that Heifetz did not record the sonatas with a pianist who was a stronger partner as he did with Moseiwitch in the Kreutzer. Bay was a good pianist but very much relegated to ‘accompanist’ which was not what Beethoven had in mind.

  • That is not Perlman with Heifetz (in the photo). That’s the 6’4 Erick Friedman standing across from JH, not Perlman.

  • First of all, the Beethoven Sonatas do not require an accompanist : they are chamber works written for piano and violin where both instruments have similar importance. Secondly, the gentleman pictured with Heifetz is not Itzhak Perlman but Erick Friedman and they are playing Bach’s Double Concerto as seen in the PBS documentary “God’s Fiddler”.

  • Not a single here from the more introspective violinists of history for whom this piece is home turf. An obvious choice is Grumiaux and Haskil. each has more profundity than almost all of these marquee names put together (I would except Oistrakh & Richter), together they do this great piece justice.

  • I think there are great and notable pairings that go, strangely, unmentioned here. (I also find the piece less amiable and “easy” than does our host, which might account for my other nominations.

    Szymon Goldberg and Lili Kraus, certainly a treasure of the 78 rpm era. Lots of backbone and wit from both players. What a combination they were.

    And Szigeti, of which i know three. The impressive “live” performance with Schnabel has been released on CBS and other labels. The studio recording with Mieczyslaw Horszowski also demands attention, and of course has the best sound. There is also the live performance in the complete set with Arrau. Beethoven was said to be perversely pleased that the great virtuoso Pierre Rode was outplayed by the Archduke Rudolf at the premiere – and if the violin writing was for a Rode past his prime perhaps Szigeti’s well documented struggles with the instrument (and bow) find a parallel with Rode, and are why this sonata seems tailor made for him.

    I do not think Arrau ever got around to the Sonata No. 10 in his stereo recordings with Arthur Grumiaux, and I suspect it would have been a nice one. But Grumiaux and Clara Haskil were captured in a live performance, and as with everything that they recorded together, it is a treasure of sensitive and imaginative duo playing. It can be found on YouTube.

    While I do not reflexively prefer HIP recordings, I do think there are some coloristic things in this sonata, particularly the first movement, that Beethoven was experimenting with that really benefit when heard on period instruments.

    I’d nominate Jaap Schroder and Jos van Immerseel on EMI/deutsche harmonia mundi, and Johnnes Leertouwer and Julian Reynolds on the Globe label. Particularly the latter in terms of a diamond-like night sky that they paint so beautifully in the arpeggiated passage soon after the amusing “you take the theme, no you take it, no YOU take it” opening measures.

    I also happen to think very highly of the Pinchas Zukerman/ Marc Neikrug recording for RCA Victor Red Seal. It was in their complete set of course but was also used to fill out Zukerman’s Beethoven Concerto recording for that label. Noble playing.

    • Thank you for your comments. I agree with you entirely about Szigeti and Arrau and with Horszowski. I will look for the Schnabel. I also agree feel that behind the “amiable” or “easy” aspect which is on the surface there are very deep and profound feelings and ideas.

  • What nonsense….what Beethoven heard and what we hear today are two different worlds.The relationship of sounds
    is totally off balance with todays’ instruments.You can wait until the cows come home but won’t hear what Rode and friends heard when playing these sonatas

  • Please listen to the recording of Claudio Arrau and Joseph Szigeti. I find their concept, sense of structure, understanding of the music, and of course their playing to be exceptional. The performance is outstanding; absolutely inspiring.

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