To start at the end, this is an auspicious Volume 1 to launch Metier’s Beethoven Explored series, and it begins with an ideal performance of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 96.
That is an endearing and unique work which I particularly love and cherish – and in earlier years had often played it at home with violinist friends. Everything here makes me smile with pleasure at its ‘rightness’ – balance, articulation and phrasing, and the tone quality of both instruments (Peter Sheppard Skærved plays the RAM’s ‘Habaneck’ Strad and Aaron Shorr the Steinway D at St John’s Smith Square, perfectly set up for this repertoire). The cover portrait of Beethoven is perhaps a little severe for this particular sonata and the genial music accompanying it.
The series aims to present the Beethoven violin sonatas in their social and musical context. Here we have early duo pieces by Beethoven and an ambitious, interesting set of virtuosic variations by the sonata’s dedicatee, Archduke Rudolf, on his little minuet which ‘progresses through contrapuntal couplets, canons and inversions before breaking into romantic rhapsodising’. Peter Sheppard Skærved, who writes the compendious notes, wonders if Beethoven himself might have written the adagio variation towards the end.
I am tempted to say this is the best recording of Op. 96 I know, though recognising that unless you are a diligent comparative reviewer, the present (when it is good) always tends to dominate the past. No worry or competition though; this series is unique in its purpose and as such is to be unreservedly welcomed. Full informative background notes by the violinist and everything else in the safe hands of David Lefeber.