There must be many different ways of exploring Beethoven. Imaginative programming – putting Beethoven’s last violin and piano sonata together with a work by his most illustrious patron, and adding two pieces from the beginning of his career – is certainly one way, and Peter Shappard Skærved’s unusually extensive notes, fascinating if slightly contentious, continue the exploration in another direction. But are the performances also searching and exploratory?
The playing is articulated with beautiful clarity, (enhanced by a notably clean recording); it’s a well-lit musical landscape in which all kinds of harmonic and textural details achieve prominence, Skærved’s assertion that Op. 96 is a ‘legato’ piece, written to exploit the style of Pierre Rode (who with the Archduke Rudolf gave its first performance), is given substance by his fine tone and persuasive cantabile style. Other performers – Argerich and Kremer, for instance – have been able to make the sonata’s meditative passages more solemn and mysterious, and the same objective manner characterises the Wo041 Rondo, which is bright and lively but needs more graceful expression to show the rise and fall of each phrase.
The Archduke’s large-scale Variations are performed with great gusto; Aaron Shorr makes a fine effect with the long coda, like an improvised piano cadenza to which the violin makes an occasional contribution. And it certainly adds something to our impression of Beethoven to hear so many elements of his piano style being taken over by his royal pupil.