Beethoven Complete Works for Violin & Orchestra

Posted By MiOd On Monday, August 12, 2013 Under
Beethoven: Complete Works for Violin & Orchestra
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
Coming after who knows how many hundreds of recordings of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, I was curious to hear if Herreweghe and his hitherto unencountered fiddler Patricia Kopachinskaja had anything to say on the Concerto that hadn't been said before.

They do. One factor, I thought, of a historically-oriented approach would be tempo: taking the opening "allegro ma non troppo" as an allegro (even "ma non troppo"), not the customary "moderato" or "maestoso". Likewise with the slow movement, "larghetto" and not "largo", and the finale, not the trudging peasant dance that many make of it (mind you, why would peasants in Beethoven's time so trudge?) but "Rondo allegro". And that's exactly what Herreweghe does. Not that it is without precedent: unsurprisingly, Heifetz-Toscanini in 1940 (Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Piano Concerto No. 3) and Heifetz-Munch-1955 [[Heifetz Plays Beethoven & Brahms]] took it faster still, and with plenty of muscle. But with Herreweghe it isn't just a matter of swift tempos: add to that the raw textures of period timpani, and the crisp articulation and biting accents demanded from his orchestra: this is not an approach that "mellows down" Beethoven.

Then enters whatshername? Kopatchinskaja. She's a young Moldavian fiddler, born in 1977, with her expected share of small or big international prizes, and she seems to have quite a daring personality. While nothing to shame about, her tone is not particularly beautiful, especially in the higher reaches where you need that kind of angelic tone; but maybe it is the fiddle she plays on - not exactly a "period" instrument for Beethoven, as it is an 1834 Pressenda (whatever that is). The liner notes contend that the playing style of premiere performer (and composer) Franz Clement stood in contrast to that of the Rodde-Viotti school, not forceful and powerful but delicate and tender (which may be true), and that Kopatchinskaja has tried to emulate that very style: I don't buy that. True, her vibrato-less playing, especially in the finale, conveys a sweetness of tone, but there are many moments where she plays rather forcefully and muscularly - no criticism implied. But two things make her stand apart: first, her application of a free, almost rhapsodic rubato, for sake of expressivity no doubt. You wouldn't necessarily associate that with period practice, but why not? We don't know how Clement played it at the premiere in 1806, and he seems to have been quite an eccentric. And it is part of an approach which tries to recapture something of the discovery and "unfinishness" of the composition at its premiere (the excellent liner notes, by Robin Stowell, author of "Beethoven: Violin Concerto (Cambridge Music Handbooks)", recall that the Concerto was written in haste and that Beethoven reserved four staves to the solo part, to allow for alterations and variants).

One of the most striking aspects of that approach is Kopatchinskaja's not infrequent departures from the printed score, in which she plays variants from the manuscript: you get Beethoven with melodies that sound extemporized. It reminds me of the kind of ornamentation you find in the wildest readings of Bach's Goldberg Variations, like Feltsman's (Bach: Goldberg Variations). Another aspect is her cadenzas (in all three movements), transcriptions (with a few cuts) of the cadenzas written by Beethoven for his own transcription of the Violin Concerto as a Piano Concerto (opus 61a), integral with timpani accompaniment in the first movement. That implied some "voice-over" rerecording, in order to get the full polyphony of the piano part. Kremer also used Beethoven's cadenzas in his 1992 recording with Harnoncourt, only he had a fortepiano play from the wings and dialogued with it. It was pretty jarring (see my review of Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 / Romance in G major, Op. 40 / Romance in F major, Op. 50 - Gidon Kremer / Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt). In 1980 the same Kremer had already made a recording (with Marriner), with timpani-accompanied cadenzas written by Schnittke (Beethoven: Violinkonzert (Violin Concerto in D)). Well, transcribed for violin(s) and with Kopatchinskaja, Beethoven's cadenzas sound at times even more like "contemporary music" than Schnittke's! The most convincing use of Beethoven's cadenzas remains Schneiderhan's, who cleverly and tastefully adapted them for solo violin (keeping the timps in the first movement) in his 1962 recording with Jochum (see my review of Beethoven, Mozart: Violin Concertos / Schneiderhan, Jochum).

Herreweghe takes the slow movement as written, a flowing Larghetto rather than a slow-moving Largo, but Kopatchinskaja doesn't hesitate to slow down in order to press all the expressive juices, playing with marvellous dreaminess. The finale is swift and playful, and the instrumental balances are great, with fine interplay between the violinist and the solo woodwinds.

So: a version like no other you've heard, definitely (but see my addendum in the comments section hereunder). Is it true to the way it was played on December 23, 1806, nobody will know until the time machine is invented (and for the cadenzas, an emphatic "no", of course). Whether you will love it or hate it is a matter of taste, and of your readiness to be jolted out of your listening habits. Some will surely find it way over the top. I personally love Herreweghe's "toscaninian" swift tempos and biting accents, and Kopatchinskaja's personality and extemporisations. I find that it gives a freshness, a sense of a composition being unveiled and discovered as it is played along.

The fillers offer Beethoven's complete output for concertante violin - I can imagine none more appropriate, other than Clement's own Violin Concerto, as found on Rachel Barton Pine's recent recording, Beethoven, Clement: Violin Concertos. Kopatchinskaja's searching mind and willingness to explore is demonstrated again by the fact that she went to the archives in Vienna where the manuscript to Beethoven's unfinished fragment of a concerto is kept, WoO (work without opus number) 5, from circa 1790/92. From the manuscript, she was able to establish that the composition was in such fragmentary form not because Beethoven had just stopped there, but probably because the rest of the manuscript was lost. Given its date, the composition is not entirely significant, but certainly more "Sturm and Drang" than any Mozart Violin Concerto.

See, at the end of this review, I don't need any more to go painstakingly look on the disc's cover to type her name: Kopatchinskaja.

(01). Concerto pour violon en ré, op.61 - 1. Allegro non troppo
(02). Concerto pour violon en ré, op.61 - 2. Larghetto
(03). Concerto pour violon en ré, op.61 - 3. Rondo (Allegro)
(04). Romance n°2 en fa, op.50
(05). Romance n°1 en sol, op.40
(06). Concerto pour violon en ut, woo5, fragment

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