Zimmermann Continues His Beethoven Cycle

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas Nos. 5-7 / Frank Peter Zimmermann, vln; Martin Helmchen, pno / Bis SACD-2527

Having been impressed by Frank Peter Zimmermann’s August 2020 release of Beethoven violin sonatas Nos. 1-4, but much less impressed with his album of the Martinů Violin Concerti and Bartók’s solo violin sonata, I decided to take the plunge and review this disc as well.

Perhaps it’s just my perception, but it seems to me that the difference lies in the imaginative, sprightly accompaniments of his pianist on these sets, Martin Helmchen. Helmchen’s infectious bounce and drive at the keyboard either inspires Zimmermann to give a bit more in these works than he did in Martinů and Bartók or the two of them urged each other on in rehearsal, because the Zimmermann on these Beethoven albums is almost a different player, not only more energetic but much more nuanced and interesting. As I said earlier, these are performances on the level of the great set of the complete sonatas by violinist Barbara Govatos and pianist Marcantonio Barone on Bridge 9389 A/D, my favorite set of these works to date.

One small but significant factor I noticed was the pianist’s subtle use of rhythm. Most of the time he’s straightforward, but then there are superb moments of rubato where he subtly shortens a note here and then elongate another in the course of a single bar, giving the music more elasticity, and Zimmermann follows him superbly. It is this that impressed me so much in the Govatos-Barone set, and it also impressed me in this new Zimmermann-Helmchen release.

I did notice, however, that although Zimmermann plays very responsively to detail, he maintains a uniform sweetness of tone from start to finish. He is loath to play more roughly when the music calls for it, and that is where Govatos betters him. She was unafraid to “speak” dramatic truth on her instrument when those moments came, whereas he is. This may seem to some like splitting hairs, but I think it important in Beethoven. (It’s also important in Martinů, which is why I wasn’t crazy about his performances of those concerti.) Nonetheless, I’ll have to wait to hear his “Kreutzer” sonata in the next CD to judge him more fairly in this respect, so stay tuned.

Even so, I’d have to say that barring a release of all 10 sonatas by that gifted genius Patricia Kopatchinskaja—which I don’t think will happen, since she believes that there are “too many recordings” of the standard repertoire out there already—this is probably the best alternative to Govatos-Barone and, in terms of rich and highly realistic sound quality, even a shade better. But I still say that there were several moments in these sonatas where Zimmermann should have forsaken his sweet tone and let a bit more emotion hang out (the last two movements of No. 5, for instance). Nonetheless, this is a fine reading of these chestnuts, recommended especially for Helmchen’s work at the keyboard. He is well worth hearing and studying.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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