Viktoria Mullova (violin) & Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
Sonata in E flat for Piano and Violin, Op.12/3
Sonata in A for Piano and Violin, Op.47 (Kreutzer)
Recorded 14 & 16 December 2009 in Wyastone Leys, UK
CD Number - ONYX 4050
Published: 30 May 2010
Among mainstream big-name violin soloists, Viktoria Mullova is rare in her enthusiasm for period style and historical practice.
For her first recording of Beethoven violin sonatas, she has chosen one of the foremost, and arguably the most brilliant, of today’s period fortepiano players, the South African Kristian Bezuidenhout.
He uses a beautiful, crisp, clear “Hammerklavier” built by Anton Walter und Sohn in 1822, while Mullova has restringed her Guadagnini violin with thick gut, which she plays with a “lighter, transitional bow” (that is, of the classical period).
It would be wrong to say that she adopts wholesale the stylistic manners of “baroque to classical” specialists: these are big-boned, exciting readings, played in a modern style, but profiting from the more transparent sound of the gut-stringed instrument and light bow, enabling a perfect balance with the delicate fortepiano.
In the earlier sonata — designated for piano and violin, with the keyboard instrument, Beethoven’s own, having very much the upper hand(s) — Mullova defers to Bezuidenhout’s mercurial brilliance, but she greedily embraces every opportunity to display her bravura technique in the Kreutzer, written for the extraordinary mulatto player George Polgreen Bridgetower, from whom Beethoven later withdrew the dedication in favour of the French virtuoso Rodolphe Kreutzer.
Mullova’s drama in the grand concerto-like opening movement is offset by the supple lyricism of the andante variations and the irresistible brio and wit of the presto. Sheer delight.
June 11 2010
Fortepiano and gut-stringed violin bring danger to works by the great composer that were never meant to purr quietly on a shelf
By now, music lovers should be well used to the sound of the violinist Viktoria Mullova playing with gut strings and an antique-style bow. A tone gritty but bright, notes and phrases crackling with fire: for six years or so these have been regular features of her recordings and concerts with period instrument musicians. It seems strange to recall that the music industry once dubbed her the “Ice Queen” for the chilled beauty of her playing and her immobile onstage posture. But now Mullova is older, independent and liberated.
She’s not the only source of sparks in this CD of two Beethoven violin sonatas, the Kreutzer (the greatest of all) and the early, boisterous Op 12 No 3. Please welcome Kristian Bezuidenhout, from South Africa, a fortepiano specialist of sparkling powers, who plays an extremely characterful 1822 instrument from the Viennese company of Anton Walter. Down at the bottom it growls like a bear; up at the top it sings like a bird. In the middle it’s a velvet red wine.
The piano’s clipped attack is amazing: when Bezuidenhout prances through Beethoven’s fancy runs you almost feel giddy. And, being a studio recording, we’re spared the fortepiano’s chief downside: the need for constant retuning.
Time and again the two players strike the most telling contrasts. Take the adagio movement in Op 12 No 3, in which the wiry sunshine of Mullova’s 1750 Guadagnini comes gorgeously cradled in the piano’s cotton wool. Mullova and Bezuidenhout work just as well making their tones blend: the central variation movement in the Kreutzerrejoices in the most delicate colouring, the subtlest of touches.
Above all, the fortepiano and the gut-stringed violin bring extra excitement, danger even, to Beethoven’s music, never designed for purring quietly on a shelf. The nervous quality in Mullova’s playing helps the first movement of the Kreutzer to gallop ahead, tense and turbulent. Bezuidenhout’s fortepiano, extremely agile, almost frighteningly clear, makes its own match with the composer’s volatility.
After this ear-opening CD, conventional Beethoven performances with a Steinway and a steel-stringed violin are going to sound terribly docile.
Boston Globe - September 5, 2010
BEETHOVEN VIOLIN SONATAS Viktoria Mullova, violin; Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano Onyx Classics
There probably aren’t many cities in the United States where a fortepianist could build up a robust following, but Boston is one of them, and Kristian Bezuidenhout is the one to follow. This young, prodigiously talented South African-born musician seems to appear at least once on every Boston Early Music Festival season, inevitably winning over crowds with his remarkably sensitive approach to period instrument performance.
Bezuidenhout’s latest disc is a recording of Beethoven Violin Sonatas with the Russian-born violinist Viktoria Mullova — and it’s excellent. He plays an Anton Walter und Sohn instrument from 1822; she equips her 1750 Guadagnini with gut strings and uses a transitional bow. Taken together, the palette of sonorities they create and the sheer resourcefulness of the playing produce a mercurial and wonderfully fresh rendition of perhaps the best known violin sonata in the entire repertoire, Beethoven’s “Kreutzer’’ Sonata, alongside the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 3.
In both works, Mullova’s playing has all the virtuosity you would expect while also an appealingly earthy, gritty quality and a razor-sharp intensity of expression. Bezuidenhout turns his instrument’s limitations — its modest sonic footprint, fast decay of sound, and uneven registers — into strengths that allow for clear and brilliantly distinctive moods and colorations. His playing never competes with Mullova’s but complements it with nuances and subtleties, especially in the instrument’s lower dynamic range.
In the “Kreutzer,’’ the volatile outer movements lurch and swerve in ways that keep the ear engaged even if you know where the music is going. This is Beethoven’s gloriously bumpy journey ventured without the shock absorbers and high polish of modern instruments — and all the more exciting for it.
The Financial Times
By Andrew Clark
16 October 2010
Complete Sonatas for Violin & Piano
Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley
(Virgin Classics, 3 CDs)
Mullova sets a new benchmark for the Beethoven violin sonatas. Her disc has two defining characteristics – the “period” approach she and Bezuidenhout adopt, and the volatility and danger they find in the music. The two facets are interdependent.
Listening to Capuçon and Braley as a comparison, you can’t help sensing that Beethoven sounds less modern on the instruments of our time than on those of the early 19th century. Using a Guadagnini violin with thick gut strings, Mullova gives the music an invigorating sense of attack, and a depth and range of tone colour that Capuçon’s more polished sound barely hints at. Bezuidenhout’s 1822 fortepiano similarly transforms the sonatas’ expressive range – like Mullova’s violin, capable of a robust sound that can be scaled down to a whisper.
None of this would count without the sense of adventure that they invest in the music, bringing out the Kreuzer’s mercurial quality in a way that generates excitement and surprise in equal measure. Capuçon and Braley are unfailingly musical, and if it weren’t for Mullova, I would be hailing them as the latest in a line of notable partnerships to give poised, thoughtful accounts of these sonatas. But they don’t tell us anything new, and that is why Mullova must go on to record a complete cycle.
1 November 2010
All Things Strings: On Record
Sometimes a Strad and a Steinway just aren’t good enough. When Russian-born violinist Viktoria Mullova—who, during the past few years, has been increasingly focused on authentic music and period instruments—decided to visit these gorgeous sonatas, she opted to play, not on her “modern” 1723 “Jules Falk” Stradivari, but on a 1750 Guadagnini strung with thick gut strings while playing a lighter transitional bow.
She and pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, who plays on an 1822 Anton Walter und Sohn instrument (with leather-jacketed hammers), also perform these iconic works in the lower pitch of A = 430 to allow the violin to resonate more.
The results are quite striking on this program pairing Beethoven’s elegant Violin Sonata No. 3 in Eb, Op. 12, No. 3, and the powerful Violin Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47—the Kreutzer.
That latter work, a warhorse of the violin repertoire, was composed at a time when Beethoven knew he was going deaf. He was, as he wrote to a friend at the time, living “a miserable life.” Mullova does this monumental and emotionally wrought work justice.
For Mullova, the aforementioned setup allows her to express the whisper-soft passages of the Third Sonata’s slow movements and the grittiness of the Kreutzer’s faster passages. It also permits her to add considerable depth to her tonal palette.
As a result, this is one of the most enjoyable, and lyrically expressive readings of these popular Beethoven sonatas in quite a while, especially since the musicians gave considerable attention to the fact that Beethoven was deeply involved in writing operas at the time he composed these works. That’s most noticeable in Violin
Sonata No. 3, in which Mullova delivers a richly textured and beautifully colored singing tone.
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
This might be described as the ‘shock of the old’, a re-hearing of familiar music, specifically the dry clattering sound of the piano, here a fortepiano manufactured by Anton Walter und Sohn in 1822 – but, increasing deafness aside, it is what Beethoven himself would have been familiar with in his early life and written for. Of course, after a little, the ear adjusts and then finds much that is revealing and convincing. Played here with relish by Kristian Bezuidenhout, the instrument’s clarity in quick runs is a joy, so too its velvety softness in the bass area. By contrast, Viktoria Mullova’s Guadagnini violin, here with gut strings and played with a “lighter transitional bow”, is less ‘different’ in sound to a Stradivarius played in a full-on manner , but is afforded a weightlessness and lucidity that is complementary to the piano and which also shines given Mullova’s virtuosity.
Although both musicians here have sterling techniques, they serve these sonatas with searching interpretations. The E flat work is enjoyed for its novelty, diversion, good humour and joy. The slow movement is brought off with intimacy, and the bright and bouncy finale enjoys a moderate tempo, one ensuring that all of Beethoven’s witticisms are articulated clearly.
As for the great ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, this receives a vibrant and sensitive reading, Mullova and Bezuidenhout knocking sparks off each other but not for showmanship purposes for the music’s energy and lyricism is dynamically and lovingly attended to. It’s a headlong but controlled performance, Mullova even contributing a few (startling but persuasive) twirls of her own at the return of the first-movement exposition. This is not as gutsy an account as some (or as mellow as the majestic Deutsche Grammophon version by Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff) but that has to with the chosen instruments rather than through the performers, each energised and focussed and who also respond brilliantly to each other. Mullova’s expressive playing is a particular pleasure, so too the growth of the second-movement Variations; much delight here, from performers and this listener, as the music is taken on its varied but interrelated course.
The venue used for this recording is just a little too spacious, but the balance is good – as it needs to be for music designated as being for piano and violin (not that Onyx presents it thus). Just occasionally the violin dominates, perhaps reflecting more the personality of Mullova rather than any misjudgement in equality. The odd reservation aside, this is a stand-out and must-have release, both as thoroughly engrossing performances and a fine-tune for the ears.
Viktoria Mullova (violin) & Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Sonata in A minor for Piano and Violin, Op.23
Sonata in E flat for Piano and Violin, Op.12/3
Sonata in A for Piano and Violin, Op.47 (Kreutzer)
Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London
Friday, October 22, 2010
A concert of Beethoven violin sonatas might be thought too much of a good thing. In practice it worked well thanks to the meaningful partnership between Viktoria Mullova and Kristian Bezuidenhout; indeed it would not be unfair to say that it was frequently his contribution which was the more ear-catching.
Beethoven penned few duds, but Opus 23 is hardly one of his more inspired works – in fairness, Tully Potter refers to it as “often-scorned”. This unpretentious work served well enough as an opener. However Mullova and Bezuidenhout brought a weight and intensity to this discursive music which might have been more in place in ‘late’ Beethoven. There were compensations. The dry fortepiano was highly effective in clarifying textures such as the fugal passages in the slow movement, ornamentation was crystal-clear throughout and the all-important pauses were extremely telling.
On an altogether more elevated plane musically was the E flat Sonata from Opus 12 with its sublime slow movement and joyfully skipping finale. Here the crunchy fortepiano bass added a propulsive rhythmic edge to the first movement's climaxes and the musicians precisely located the brief moment of stillness before close. The Adagio has one of those gloriously elevated themes which give it an emotional weight far beyond its relatively brief duration; Mullova spun this out beautifully whilst Bezuidenhout's dry drum-beat bass would have been impossible on a ‘modern’ piano. The finale’s main idea brought a hint of good humour from the normally reserved Mullova although there were a few moments of ferocity. The fortepiano's percussive treble brought some unusual perspectives.
The ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata was more of a mixed bag. It started surprisingly gently, both musicians opting for reflection rather than grandeur and then taking a comparatively relaxed tempo for the Presto. As with the other sonatas the first-movement exposition repeat was taken, in this case with the addition of a link from the violin, and the duo made the most of the moments of stillness. The close brought a moment of unexpected humour when the fortepiano's sustaining mechanism jammed on the very last chord; the look of shock on Bezuidenhout's face (he closely resembles the young Harrison Ford) was something to behold, but fortunately there was a fortepiano doctor in the house! The Andante brought a flowing tempo, too flowing in the initial variations, but later the minor-key one and the coda, which effectively acts as the final variation really got to the heart of the matter. The finale was fast and furious.
As a brief but well-chosen encore the scherzo of the Spring Sonata was similarly rapid and lasted a little over a minute.
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
By Michael Church
1 October 2008
The crowd that came to hear Viktoria Mullova open her "artist in focus" series was as heterogeneous as you'd expect, given the scope of this statuesque star's activities. Her recital on period instruments was to be followed by a concert with her own ensemble, and also by an uncategorisable event in which she and her "crossover" friends would purvey their rich brew of Hungarian Gypsy-plus-jazz. If she didn't exist, you'd have a job inventing her: the key to her art lies in what she has come out of.
She began life, goaded by her ambitious parents, as an infant fiddler in Moscow, and though her obsessive perfectionism took her to the heights – winning the Tchaikovsky competition in 1982 – the Soviet straitjacket blighted her life. She once told me, "One careless word could cost you your liberty, and one careless note could damage your chances of artistic success." Hence her daring defection to the West at the height of the Cold War; hence her determination to play the kinds of music that had been forbidden her. It was her good fortune that the man she ultimately married – the cellist Matthew Barley, with whom she now plays jazz – should turn out to be one of classical music's leading mould-breakers.
The funky African outfit in which she appeared contrasted piquantly with the mellow sound created by her gut-stringed Guadagnini and Kristian Bezuidenhout's fortepiano, as they launched into Schubert's Duo Sonata in A major. But as they sailed through this graceful work, followed by the Rondo brilliant, one was struck by the sonic balance between their instruments: infinitely more satisfying that the usual mismatch of Steinway and Strad, where the latter is always in danger of being obliterated by the former.
When they returned, however, to deliver Beethoven's Violin Sonata in E flat major, followed by his "Kreutzer Sonata", we saw what these musicians are really made of. Mullova's immaculate playing gave off a lovely sense of respiration, while Bezuidenhout made the fortepiano sound more beautiful than I have ever heard it before.
And if that was a revelation, so was what they did with Beethoven's most overplayed violin-and-piano work. The outer movements of the "Kreutzer" had all the force you could wish, with the piano rippling and roaring while the violin effortlessly asserted its dominance; the majestic slow-movement variations were, simply, inspired.