Notes and Editorial Reviews
Midori Seiler (vn); Jos van Immerseel (fp) (period instruments)
ZIG-ZAG 307 (3 CDs: 233:55)
Violinist Midori Seiler and pianist Jos van Immerseel, playing period instruments (Seiler an anonymous mid 18th-century Italian violin, and Immerseel a 1988 reproduction by Christopher Clarke of a 18th-century fortepiano by Anton Walter), give an account of all of Beethoven’s violin sonatas that’s consistently bright in tone but dark in spirit, aggressive in articulation but suave in
expressivity, and at the same time cheerfully engaging and volcanically explosive—in fact, a world of oxymoronic contradictions. If the First Sonata (they take them out of sequence in order to accommodate them on three CDs) owed a debt to Haydn and Mozart, Seiler and Immerseel show that Beethoven’s spirit shone through the influences, even in the relatively serene theme and variations that constitutes its second movement. Seiler discusses the capability of her instrument (with gut strings) to reproduce the “rugged, harsh” sounds that also belong to this sound world; but, as in the slow movement of the Third Sonata, these alternately subordinate themselves to legato passages informed by Seiler’s lively intelligence and to her crisp, skittish playfulness in the more animated ones. The duo’s rhythmic flexibility and dynamic subtlety reveal drama in apparently simple phrases, but possess the requisite drive, as in the Third Sonata’s last movement. They don’t try to make each passage erupt with primal energy: The trio of the Fifth Sonata’s Scherzo, for example, seems more amiable than driven, despite Seiler’s sharp tonal edge.
Seiler and Immerseel create from the first theme of the Sixth Sonata a microcosm embracing (if not reconciling) in its short span the Apollonian and Dionysian, while the slow movement flows with liquid grace and winning sensibility in their performance. The at times uneasy balance between darkness and light, which continues through the duo’s reading of the last movement’s theme and variations, tips toward impassioned intensity in the Seventh Sonata’s first movement. Seiler’s discreet vibrato allows the melodies of the slow movement to vibrate freely and openly, while Immerseel keeps the figuration pellucid (Mayor Shinn’s buttonhook in the well water), even in the lower registers. The same clarity pervades their performance of the Scherzo, while in the finale they slice with incisive wit. The more serene 10th Sonata stands far removed from the stormy churnings of the Seventh, and, coming as it does immediately after it in the sequence, the restraint of the duo’s performance, especially in the slow movement (but the Scherzo and finale each exhibits restraint in its own way), provides a quick overview of Seiler’s and van Immerseel’s expressive range.
The Fourth and Eighth sonatas, which appear together on the third disc, also provide opportunities for a synoptic view of the duo’s range, impish in the more gnomic moments of what passes for the slow movement but also beguilingly lyrical (or, alternatively, intriguingly somber) during its contrapuntal outburst. In the more open and overtly slashing Eighth Sonata, Seiler plays the first movement with forceful vigor, spitting staccatos and rasping in accompanimental figures with a jazzy rhythmic verve. Seiler sounds warmly viola-like in the slow movement’s melting passages, despite the starch in her violin’s timbre; but she and Immerseel sound raucously energetic in the finale. The set concludes with the “Kreutzer” Sonata, in a performance that may, in the first movement, sound a bit quirky, but nevertheless transmits the movement’s primal energy (Seiler almost equals the saber-rattling Zino Francescatti in the Janissary theme). The duo plays the theme of the slow movement’s variations without the
geniality that warm vibrato can impart, emphasizing its melodic structure rather than its
, and they take the variations themselves with a leisurely lack of concern with virtuosity (for example, Jascha Heifetz raises gooseflesh in the repeated-note variation for violin, and most pianists I’ve heard bubble in piano’s triplets in the first variation); that’s perhaps why the movement takes all of 17:10 in this performance. But it’s a nuanced quarter-hour, and few have equaled the limpid purity of Seiler’s last full statement of the theme. The finale also moves along rather slowly, this time with perhaps less compensation in weight or nuance for the forward momentum.
The recorded sound balances Seiler’s and Immerseel’s individual though compatible instruments, reflecting the balance struck by the instrumentalists themselves. For those who believe the judgment musicographers have pronounced concerning Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano—that they’re not among his best works—this set could just reopen hearts and minds. Insightful though they may be, oppressive they’re not. For throughout, Seiler and Immerseel eschew everything artificial or academic (in the worst sense). Henry Fowler, distinguishing between “intelligent” and “intellectual,” suggests that we all fancy we find someone intelligent though not intellectual in the looking glass. That’s a perfect description of what I find in this illuminating set of recordings, urgently recommended to all those willing to step outside the world, however rarefied, of Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh, Zino Francescatti, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and even Jascha Heifetz, and the seductively elegant sounds produced by their modern instruments.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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