Zimmermann Plays Beethoven Sonatas

cover BIS-2517

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-4 / Frank Peter Zimmermann, vln; Martin Helmchen, pno / Bis SACD-2517

I’ve often found it odd that, in certain key works by Beethoven, it is often the somewhat lesser-known performers who excel nowadays. This was true about 13-15 years ago with the Colorado Quartet’s set of the complete string quartets, it was true a decade or so ago with Michael Korstick’s set of the piano sonatas, and equally true in recent years with the violin sonatas played by Barbara Govatos and Marcantonio Barone on the Bridge label. And here we are again with a solidly professional but not really a “marquee name” violinist, Frank Peter Zimmermann, in this new recording of the first four violin sonatas.

Zimmermann has had an active career since debuting with the Vienna Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel in 1983, so it’s not as if he is a newcomer, but he clearly doesn’t have as high a profile as Gidon Kremer, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Joshua Bell, Kyung-Wha Chung, Rachel Barton Pine or several others whose recordings are issued in machine-like fashion. Yet here he is, playing in the first of what is projected to be a complete set of the Beethoven sonatas, and he is splendid.

Unlike Govatos and Barone, who had a bit more give-and-take in their interpretations, Zimmermann and his musical partner, pianist Martin Helmchen, give us fairly straightforward readings, yet within their “straightforward” playing are several subtle moments of rubato that give the music piquancy.

And I will go further: Zimmermann, like Govatos, clearly has not only a beautiful tone but that little something wherein he gives the music little rhythmic “nudges,” like gently pushing a lamb over a fence, that enliven the rhythm. Helmchen is a bit more straightforward in his approach but not stiff or uninteresting. I also liked the fact that Zimmermann plays with a quick, light vibrato rather than the ahistorical “straight tone” so beloved by modern performers of older music. Helmchen is playing an instrument with good resonance and a rich tone although, according to the notes, it is a modern freak instrument called the “Chris Maene Straight Strung Concert Grand Piano.” It was created in 2013 when Daniel Barenboim commissioned Maene to build “the perfect parallel-strung piano” to “reconcile the unique characteristic sonorous richness of the historical piano with the volume, clarity, power and playing comfort of the best modern concert pianos.” It’s still a good-sounding instrument with adequate power to propel the music and give much-needed richness to the sound, but umm, what’s the big deal about “straight strung”? None but the most sensitive ears can tell that a regular concert grand is resonating anyway (think of Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach on his beloved Steinway), since piano strings do so at a very rapid rate, often beyond the aural capacity of the naked ear. Had I never mentioned this, you might never know the difference anyway if you were just listening to the recording without the liner notes, but there you are. Straight Strung Concert Grand indeed. One place where you can actually hear less resonance is in the opening bars of the “Andante” of Sonata No. 2.

Yet it’s not the instruments used but the final musical result that matters, and as I say, these are wonderful performances. The music emerges in a bubbling, bucolic manner, with lots of dramatic emphasis where needed and those little delightful moments by the violinist noted above. I also especially liked the way Helmchen dug into the rhythmic propulsion of the piano solo episode in the middle section of the Sonata No. 3’s first movement.

As for the sound, although both violin and piano are very clearly centered I felt there was just a touch too much reverb, making the instruments sound as if they were in an empty locker room. I know that Bis is very proud of its SACD sonics, and justly so when it comes to orchestral and opera recordings, but as someone who reviewed a bunch of chamber music performances prior to my becoming crippled, there’s just a bit too much “bounce” to the sound…note, for instance, the descending figures at around the four-minute mark in the “Adagio con molto” of Sonata No. 3. Just, perhaps, a 30% reduction of reverb would have been ideal for me.

Yet the bottom line is if I didn’t already own the Govatos/Barone recordings of these sonatas (as well as the wonderful historic 1946 live performances by Henri Temianka and Leonard Shure), I’d clearly place this recording at the very top of the list. Yet even without these comparisons, this is already promising to be the best competition for Govatos/Barone in the catalog. I can’t wait to hear the remaining sonatas.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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