There are four years between the publication of Beethoven’s Opus 12 (1799) and Opus 30 (1803), a period during which Beethoven’s musical language evolved to become more idiomatic, more “Romantic”, if you like. There is a loosening of the Classical shackles. More striking contrasts – in speed, in volume, in key – are deployed with greater freedom. So naturally, between the two Op. 12 works presented here – No 1 in D and No 3 in E Flat – and the two from Op. 30 – No 6 in A and No 8 in G – there is likewise a larger, audible contrast. That is just one of the many pleasures of listening to this first volume in Chloë Hanslip and Danny Driver’s projected complete recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin.
The other pleasures are legion, and the playing brims over with conviviality and brio throughout. Beethoven treats both instruments as equals – there is never any real question of one being primarily the accompanying instrument, one the dominant instrument. Hanslip and Driver are similarly artistic equals, though each with their individual personalities which both allow subtly to inflect this three-way musical conversation.
I am too fond of Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov’s complete set for Harmonia Mundi to make a call just yet. But this duo’s sparkling ebullience (No 1), brilliant drama (No 3), insightful contrasts of tone and touch (No 6, which Driver calls “the most subtle of all Beethoven’s works for piano and violin”) and sheer bucolic fun (No 8) already have me wavering between the two.
Moreover, listen to the exchanges in the D Major’s Allegro con brio, in which each partner responds to the other with a tenderness that belies the extrovert momentum of the writing. Or Hanslip’s whispered ‘accompaniment’ to the piano in the opening of the E Flat Sonata’s Adagio, which movement Driver rightly compares with the second movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata. Or the heartfelt sympathy with which the players make manifest the winter sun that prevails throughout the A Major’s Adagio. Or the frank ambivalence infecting the pastoral mood of the G Major’s opening movement.
In all of this, there is a sympathy, a psychological depth, which plugs directly into Beethoven’s propensity to write paragraphs that make you feel like you’re being urged to the edge of an abyss, even as the sun continues to shine and the birds continue to sing.
I look forward to Hanslip and Driver’s Kreutzer and Spring and the rest with an eagerness bordering on torment.