Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Beethoven Violin Sonatas Robert Mann Stephen Hough

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano
Robert Mann – violin
Stephen Hough – piano
Recorded live in Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, New York City, 11 December 1985 (Sonatas 1,2,5,7), 5 February 1986 (Sonatas 4,8,9), 26 February 1986 (Sonatas 3,6,10)
NIMBUS NI 2553/56 [55:51 + 44:13 + 63:28 + 61:58]

Beyond its modest price tag and comprehensive coverage of the repertoire it is difficult to think of anything much to recommend this release. It is one of a series of reissues by Nimbus from the back catalogue of the American label MusicMasters, and while many of these have been real finds (I’m thinking of the Vladimir Feltsman Bach recordings in particular) this one probably deserved its previous obscurity.

Robert Mann and Stephen Hough make an unlikely pairing. Some 40 years separate them in age, and the recordings, which were made in New York the mid-1980s, capture performances by a well-established violinist sharing a platform with a still-rising young accompanist. Hough had made a well-received American recital debut in 1984, and this Beethoven project was presumably one of the first fruits of that new-found stateside celebrity. Robert Mann, in contrast, was by then a senior figure on the New York classical music scene and leader of the prestigious Julliard String Quartet, a position he had held since the group was founded in 1946, and was also well known as a conductor and composer.

None of which explains his lack-lustre performances here. He clearly has a deep affinity with Beethoven’s musical world, and stylistically it is difficult to fault his readings. But his intonation is approximate at best, especially in the higher register, runs and scale passages are often congested, and his bowing in the louder passages is often course and inelegant. Scratchy down-bow attacks begin many of these phrases, with the bottom of the bow really driven into the lower strings. 

Stephen Hough gives very different performances. His playing is secure (for the most part: he has a few unsteady moments in the first movement of the 6th Sonata), and the affable grace of his later concerto performances is already evident. But it’s a foursquare performance from the piano, rarely filling out Beethoven’s heroic textures. It’s accompaniment and nothing more.

The sound quality does the performers no favours either. The Sonatas were recorded live at three concerts in December 1985 and February 1986, but listening to the results you could easily think they were at least ten years older. The worst is the first recital, in which Sonatas 1, 2, 5 and 7 were performed. The sound is shallow and muddy with occasional low level interference, hisses and crackles whose provenance is a mystery given that these are digital recordings. Perhaps they are the result of attempts to muffle audience noise during the remaster. The sound improves in the other recitals, but even then never excels.

The last disc is the best of the bunch, with performances of the 9th (Kreutzer) and 10th Sonatas that do have something to say about the music. The more involved movement structures of Beethoven’s later Sonatas give both performers something substantial to interpret. This is where Mann’s sense of musical drama becomes an asset, and he occasionally inspires some truly Beethovenian muscularity from Hough. Problems remain though, those scratchy violin attacks in the 9th Sonata and some suspect intonation in the higher register passages of the 10th’s Scherzo.

Brief, and I mean brief, excerpts of applause are included on the recording at the end of each Sonata, and suggest that the live experience of each of these concerts was more satisfying than the recorded document. Perhaps the recordings are old enough, and the performers sufficiently esteemed, that the discs could have historical value. If you are interested in what Robert Mann got up to in the 1980s when not leading his famous quartet, or in the roots of Stephen Hough’s later greatness, then seek this out. Otherwise avoid.

Gavin Dixon

This review orginally appeared at MusicWeb International:

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