This November, James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong take to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall stage to perform Beethoven's Complete Violin Sonatas over two extraordinary evenings as part of Melbourne Recital Centre's Great Performers series. Explore the program in this excerpt from the official program notes, written by Phillip Sametz.
You might imagine that these sonatas will take you through Beethoven’s composing life; but to make that journey you would need to turn to his piano music, in which you can map his stylistic development over the course of more than three decades. These works for piano and violin span the period 1797-1812, or from Op.12 to Op.96; he composed all but one (the last) over a period of about seven years. To further contextualise, the first of these sonatas precedes the Symphony No.1 by two years; and the last was completed in the same year as the Seventh and Eighth symphonies.
Note the term ‘for piano and violin,’ which was the conventional publishers’ description of violin sonatas for much of Beethoven’s life, and most of the sonatas you hear tonight were written for the domestic market. In Beethoven’s time, great violinists were assessed by their ability in concertos and quartets; duo sonatas were not played in public that frequently.
The expectation for these pieces was that a capable pianist would be joined by an optional melody instrument, usually flute or violin. But as Beethoven once wrote to his publisher: ‘I cannot write anything non-obbligato, for I came into this world with an obbligato soul.’ In other words, the idea of writing an optional (ad libitum) part was anathema to him, and from the first of these sonatas the instruments enjoy a shared glory; indeed, from the first bars, for Op.12 No.1 opens with a call to attention from both players. And by 1803, Beethoven was describing the Kreutzer sonata of that year as a 'sonata written in a very concertante style – almost a concerto.' As with so many other musical genres, from the concerto to the string quartet, Beethoven’s tendency was for the transformative.
How successful were these works in their time? Not long after they first appeared in 1799, Beethoven reported that his three Op.12 sonatas had gone into multiple editions, and that publishers in Paris and London were keen to print them also. As music critic William Mann put it: ‘Beethoven’s violin sonatas took root in musical homes, as we know from the frequency of their reprinting during the 19th century.’
Their enduring power has much to do with the beauty of Beethoven’s invention. Violinist Tasmin Waley-Cohen writes of the music’s ‘life-affirming spirit, its warmth, confidence, and noble beauty,’ all qualities which shine through the first set of sonatas, published in 1799. The profusion of sublime ideas which now delight us – for both instruments – did not always delight Beethoven’s contemporaries. The first review, in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, spoke of ‘difficulty piled upon difficulty’ and that they gave ‘no pleasure.’ It seems that the reviewer may have played them without violin and found the interdependence of the two instruments confusing. Yet just as so much of Beethoven’s early music reveals a close study of Mozart, so too these Op.12 sonatas reveal how much he’d learned from the increased prominence of the violin in Mozart’s later duo sonatas.
The first sonata establishes Beethoven’s love of dramatic contrast, particularly in the theme and variations of the Andante con moto. After the grace and poise of the first two variations, the boisterousness of the third is a real surprise, before a lyrical final variation and coda. In the second sonata, the jaunty opening tune once again sees the two instruments trade places, with many rapid-fire exchanges between them. It’s easy to imagine that Beethoven’s characteristically adventurous journeys into remote keys here might have annoyed our reviewer as well! The E flat sonata, although no longer than the other two, somehow feels a little more epic – that could be because of the brilliance and virtuosity of the piano part, or the songful Adagio with its dramatic coda.
Beethoven dedicated this set of sonatas to Antonio Salieri, with whom he’d been studying vocal composition. Salieri was also a powerful figure in the Habsburg Court who could help find Beethoven work. The dedicatee of next two sonatas – Opp. 23 and 24, both from 1800 – was the banker Count Moritz von Fries, a faithful supporter of the composer. Beethoven would later dedicate the Seventh Symphony to him.
There are two ‘firsts’ here: Op.23 is the first of the sonatas in a minor key, with a gusty opening Presto, a whimsical second movement that is not quite an andante and not quite a scherzo either, and a finale of quiet ferocity. The second ‘first’ is that Op.24, the much-loved Spring, is the first of the sonatas to have four movements rather than three. As it begins, the long-breathed opening theme tells you that the clouds which darkened Op.23 have lifted. The sun-drenched Adagio molto espressivo seems to anticipate the Scene by the Brook from the Pastoral symphony, and the catch-me-if-you-can, blink-and-you’ll miss-it Scherzo leads into a final Rondo of surpassing balminess. This elegant music may even help you put thoughts of La Niña to one side for a few minutes.
The Op.30 set followed these works by a year or so. On publication in 1803 they were dedicated to the recently crowned Czar Alexander I, whose relatively enlightened views Beethoven admired. They make a fascinating triptych, notably because they imply that Beethoven was fully cognisant of the advances in piano building. While the musical argument in the set’s first sonata is split evenly between the two players, the piano’s virtuoso flourishes – particularly in the theme and variations finale – also suggest, gently, that we are on the verge of Beethoven’s so-called heroic phase. This is confirmed by the expansive, four-movement C minor sonata, which composer and academic William Drabkin has called ‘in effect Beethoven’s Pathétique for piano and violin.’ Its first movement, with a darkly questioning opening theme, developed dramatically, and a grimly strutting second subject, has us facing a new direction in Beethoven’s musical journey; it’s not surprising to learn that this sonata is contemporaneous with the Piano Concerto No.3, or for that matter the despairing confession of the Heiligenstadt Testament. The final sonata in the set is a counterweight to the first, playful, frisky and succinct, in which context the graceful Tempi di minuetto seems particularly spacious.
Beethoven planned an ambitious, bravura finale for Op.30 No.1, but decided to replace it with the more modest Allegretto con variazioni. That ambitious finale instead became the Presto of his ninth – and grandest – violin sonata, the Kreutzer, of 1803. Myths have gathered around this work ever since the appearance of Tolstoy’s violent, misogynistic novella The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), which inspired René-Xavier Prinet’s 1901 painting of the same name; this was used for decades as the iconic image for Tabu perfume (the ‘forbidden fragrance’). Richard Tognetti has re-cast Beethoven’s sonata as a work for solo violin and string orchestra, and Anna Goldsworthy has created a theatre piece around a complete performance of the original work, entitled After Kreutzer. And in 1923, Czech composer Leoš Janáček entitled his first string quartet The Kreutzer Sonata, imagining Tolstoy’s story of jealousy and desire told from the woman’s perspective.
The sonata’s scale and emotional range has much to do with the violinist for whom Beethoven composed it. George Bridgetower had been employed as violinist by the Prince of Wales (later George IV); one of Beethoven’s patrons, Prince Lichnowsky, introduced them, and it was Bridgetower who gave the first performance, with Beethoven at the piano. Soon afterwards, the two men fell out over an argument about a woman they both admired, and what should have been the ‘Bridgetower Sonata’ was instead dedicated to the French violinist-composer Rodolphe Kreutzer who, famously, never played it, declaring it ‘outrageously unintelligible.’
Nine years later Beethoven composed a final violin sonata for Pierre Rode, who had been Napoleon’s personal violinist and was known for his elegant, aristocratic playing. This French musician was past his best by 1812, however, which may account for a violin part in which discretion is the watchword. In fact, Beethoven dedicated the work not to Rode but to Archduke Rudolph, who was Beethoven’s pupil and patron, and pianist for the premiere. The relaxed, lyrical Allegro moderato is followed by a gentle Adagio espressivo which leads straight into a brief Scherzo. The spotlight is firmly on the pianist in the finale’s theme and variations, until a slow variation and subsequent Allegro lead to a surprising conclusion.
James Ehnes has established himself as one of the most sought-after musicians on the international stage. Gifted with a rare combination of stunning virtuosity, serene lyricism and an unfaltering musicality, Ehnes is a favourite guest at the world’s most celebrated concert halls.
Recent orchestral highlights include the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, San Francisco Symphony, London Symphony, NHK Symphony and Munich Philharmonic. Throughout the 22/23 season, Ehnes continues as Artist in Residence with the National Arts Centre of Canada.
Alongside his concerto work, Ehnes maintains a busy recital schedule. He performs regularly at the Wigmore Hall (including the complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas in 2019/20, and the complete violin/viola works of Brahms and Schumann in 2021/22), Carnegie Hall, Symphony Center Chicago, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Ravinia, Montreux, Verbier Festival, Dresden Music Festival and Festival de Pâques in Aix. A devoted chamber musician, he is the leader of the Ehnes Quartet and the Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.
Ehnes has an extensive discography and has won many awards for his recordings, including two Grammy’s, three Gramophone Awards and eleven Juno Awards. In 2021, Ehnes was announced as the recipient of the coveted Artist of the Year title in the 2021 Gramophone Awards which celebrated his recent contributions to the recording industry, including the launch of a new online recital series entitled ‘Recitals from Home’ which was released in June 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closure of concert halls. Ehnes recorded the six Bach Sonatas and Partitas and six Sonatas of Ysaÿe from his home with state-of-the-art recording equipment and released six episodes over the period of two months. These recordings have been met with great critical acclaim by audiences worldwide and Ehnes was described by Le Devoir as being "at the absolute forefront of the streaming evolution".
Ehnes began violin studies at the age of five, became a protégé of the noted Canadian violinist Francis Chaplin aged nine, and made his orchestra debut with L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal aged 13. He continued his studies with Sally Thomas at the Meadowmount School of Music and The Juilliard School, winning the Peter Mennin Prize for Outstanding Achievement and Leadership in Music upon his graduation in 1997. He is a Member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and an honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, where he is a Visiting Professor.
Praised by critics for his passionate expression and dazzling technique, pianist Andrew Armstrong has delighted audiences across Asia, Europe, Latin America, Canada, and the United States, including performances at New York’s major stages including Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., London’s Wigmore Hall, the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the Rudolfinum in Prague and Warsaw’s National Philharmonic.
Andrew’s orchestral engagements across the globe have encompassed a vast repertoire of more than 55 concertos with orchestra. He has performed with such conductors as Peter Oundjian, Itzhak Perlman, Günther Herbig, Stefan Sanderling, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and has appeared in solo recitals and in chamber music concerts with the Elias, Alexander, American, and Manhattan String Quartets, and as a member of the Caramoor Virtuosi, Boston Chamber Music Society, Seattle Chamber Music Society, and the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players.
The 2021-2022 season has taken Andy throughout Europe with performances in Glasgow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, London at Wigmore Hall, Geneva at the Conservatoire de Musique de Geneve and at the Dresden Music Festival. He crisscrossed Canada with concerts in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the Scotia Fest, Montreal at the Festival Musique de Chambre and Vancouver at the Vancouver Chamber Music Society.
In addition to his performance activities, Andrew serves as Artistic Director of two thriving series in South Carolina — the Columbia Museum of Art’s Chamber Music on Main and the USC Beaufort Chamber Music Series. In 2020, Andrew founded New Canaan Chamber Music in New Canaan, CT and serves as Artistic Director of the flourishing new series now entering its third season. In Wisconsin, from 2017 through 2021, Andrew was Director of the Chamber Music Institute at Wisconsin’s Green Lake Festival of Music.
Words by Phillip Sametz.
James Ehnes & Andrew Armstrong perform Beethoven’s Complete Violin Sonatas over two evenings on Monday 14 and Wednesday 16 November.