by Michael De Sapio
"This is Volume Two of a projected series of the complete Beethoven sonatas for violin and fortepiano. Period instrument renditions of these sonatas have not been plentiful, but that is starting to change, with complete versions and/or single discs appearing recently from such violinists as Midori Seiler, Hiro Kurosaki, Viktoria Mullova, and Daniel Sepec. This new series from Susanna Ogata and Ian Watson is most welcome. Hearing Beethoven’s duo sonatas on the instruments of the period helps us bid goodbye to the concert hall and enter an early 19th-century salon, where this music surely belongs. Perhaps most importantly, it restores the proper balance between the two instruments that often gets compromised when a modern grand piano is used."The disc presents an unusual but apt pairing of sonatas. Although written 12 years apart, the “Spring” Sonata and the ethereal, poetic Sonata No. 10 in G (sometimes called “The Cockcrow”) are alike in their lyrical spontaneity and suggestions of the countryside. The early-Romantic reveries of the latter work are enchanting, and our performers make of it a leisurely stroll through a wooded glade in early spring. In the Adagio espressivo they create a feeling of profound and restful peace. The last movement’s theme minces naively, then proceeds to its mercurial set of variations, concluding with a note-perfect rendition of the exuberant final variation in 32nd notes. The “Spring” is notable for how the performers reconcile the sunny and stormy aspects of the first movement."Ogata is warm and rich of tone and, where needed, briskly energetic without being overly spiky. In the more biting moments there is an invigorating “chiff” to the attack of the pre-Tourte bow on the gut strings, but Ogata also knows how to sing. I enjoyed her insinuating vibrato and expressive melting between notes, which reminded me at times of Andrew Manze."As we know, Beethoven called these “sonatas for pianoforte and violin,” and so they are advertized here, with Watson an equal partner to Ogata. Watson’s fortepiano, a fine-sounding instrument with good legato, crackles and pops through the texture. Watson and Ogata are totally in sync in these performances, tempos are well judged, and there are many felicitous instances of phrasing and timing. Their combined sound is powerful and commanding. The pair finds an ideal balance between lyricism and rumbustious energy, and the performances are free of all those mannerisms which annoy those who look askance at period performance. Indeed, this is a recording for all who love the Beethoven violin/piano sonatas."The warm recorded sound is spacious yet clear. Fine notes are provided by Richard Wigmore, and photographs of the instruments used (a 1772 Joseph Klotz violin and a copy of an Anton Walter Viennese fortepiano) are included in the elegantly presented booklet."In preparing this review I listened to these same sonatas on both the Hiro Kurosaki and Midori Seiler recordings for comparison. Kurosaki is vivacious and sparky, but neither he nor Seiler is able to escape a dry, clinical violin tone and a feeling of historically informed dutifulness. The renditions on this disc have greater warmth and flexibility and are vastly preferable."Judging from this single volume, Ogata/Watson (or, if you prefer, Watson/Ogata) might turn out to be a first choice for a period-instrument cycle. In the meantime, I bid them to keep up the good work and eagerly await the rest of the series.
BEETHOVEN: SONATAS FOR FORTEPIANO AND VIOLIN, VOLUME 2
by Brian Clark
"This is the second volume in a projected complete recording of Beethoven’s sonatas for fortepiano and violin. It was recorded in a marvellously open and bright acoustic by engineers who clearly know how to set up their equipment to get the very best sound from both instruments – the sound quality is ravishing!
"That said, so are the performances. I’ve known these works for many years and yet somehow they both sounded so fresh here. The photographs in the excellent booklet show the lefthand edge of Susanna Ogata’s stand placed just above the extreme of the fortepiano’s treble register; in other words, she can (if she wants to) watch Ian Watson’s hands on the keyboard and he can sense her breathing, which must go some way to explaining the wonderful sense of togetherness.
"I shall now have to go out and buy volume 1 – this is definitely a complete set worth having!"
"★★★★½ Back to basics Beethoven brings with it plenty of authentic thrills and spills.
"Violinist Susanna Ogata is a tenured member of the Handel and Haydn Society. Keyboard player Ian Watson has had a long and distinguished career as an organist, conductor and as a director of early music, recently working with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen on a new edition of Bach’s St Mark Passion. In that same year, Watson and Ogata embarked on a project to record all ten of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas on period instruments, and this release on The Sixteen’s Coro label is the first recording.
"First up: Sonata No 4 in A Minor, Op. 23 (1801), and Sonata No 9 in A, Op. 47, the famous ‘Kreutzer’ from 1803. Watson plays a replica of an Anton Walter (1752-1826) Viennese fortepiano (both Mozart and Beethoven played Walters) while Ogata performs on a Joseph Klotz violin from 1772. It’s a remarkable sound world into which the listener is plunged and, given Watson and Ogata’s rigorous research, it is one we can assume to be similar to that inhabited by the composer himself. The sinewy violin lines are transformed by the deeper but slightly coarser and more nasal tone of the period instrument, making them noticeably more penetrating; this is particularly so when the violin is plucked, producing an extremely percussive result.
"Beethoven’s chords, meanwhile, are a revelation on the fortepiano – reverberant, rich, sonorous, and somewhat muddier than a later/standard piano. The results are marvellous, and all the more interesting if this is what Beethoven was trying to achieve (as András Schiff has argued elsewhere). The performances are electrifying – vigorous, sharp and unstoppably energetic. This is an exciting addition to the considerable catalogue of famous recordings of these works."
The Boston Musical Intelligencer
by David Moran
"Finally, a HIP CD that will jump out of your speakers to instantly establish a thrilling period experience in your livingroom may be had from our own Ian Watson, piano, and Susanna Ogata, violin, playing volume 1 of Beethoven’s Sonatas for Fortepiano & Violin (nos. 4 and 9, the Kreutzer). You won’t regret acquiring this blazing version of works you already own."
BBC Music Magazine Review
by Misha Donat
"These two sonatas, composed some four years apart, both have a presto opening movement in the key of A minor, and in the final moments of Sonata No. 4's first movement the music reaches a peak of agitation in a passage that clearly looks forward to the full-blooded style of the Kreutzer Sonata. The atmosphere of excitement in both works is very well captured by Susanna Ogata and Ian Watson, who plays on a copy of an early 19th-century piano by Anton Walter. One of the leading Viennese makers of the day, his instruments were well known to Beethoven.
"The Kreutzer Sonata was written not for the famous French player (the dedication to him represented a change of heart on Beethoven's part), but for the violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. When he and Beethoven rehearsed the work, Bridgetower seized on a long-held pause near the start of the presto in order to launch into a spontaneous cadenza, much to the composer's delight. Full marks, then, to Susanna Ogata for doing the same during the repeat. These are altogether compelling performances, with well-judged tempos (except, perhaps, for the curiously fast account of the 'pattering' second variation from the Kreutzer's middle movement), and the music always vividly characterised."
The New York Times Review
by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
"Common wisdom has it that period instruments pack a softer punch than modern ones. But as these two players show in this highly promising first installment of their Beethoven perusal, temperament is not measured in volume. Rather, the music's moody outbursts and vivacity come fully alive in elegant readings that are attentive to quicksilver changes in dynamics and articulation. Their performance of the Sonata No. 4 in A minor is darkly playful, their 'Kreutzer' Sonata brilliant and stormy."
The Scotsman Review
by Ken Walton
"The fortepiano and violin duo of Ian Watson and Susanna Ogata kickstart their survey of Beethoven’s complete sonatas for that particular combo in virile, dramatic style. It’s the A minor sonata that gets things going, the music of the opening Presto flashy and flamboyant. Ogata and Watson’s playing of it is turbulent, intense and driven by the composer’s fiery writing and wide-open expressive palate. The fortepiano here is no fragile museum piece, but a sparring partner with attitude. That same assertiveness informs the remainder of this particular sonata, not least in the lyrical playfulness of the Andante scherzoso. It is paired with the deeper intellectualism of the “Kreuzer” sonata, Op 47, virtuosically delivered."
Excerpts from examiner.com Review
by Stephen Smoliar
"Both of these sonatas contain movements based on intense bursts of energy. In the case of the opening movement of Opus 47, it is particularly easily imagine Beethoven struggling to get more out of his instrument than it was capable of delivering."
"... the rhetorical approach they take to their respective executions manages to capture a sense of urgency, if not actual frustration, that underlies the marks on the score pages."
"The result is a highly satisfying account of both sonatas that is likely to encourage the listener to think of Beethoven in terms of practical matters of making music, rather than of the monument that the nineteenth century chose to make of him after his death."
Excerpts from AllMusic Review
by James Manheim
"Putting the "Kreutzer" up front rather than plowing through the less distinctive early sonatas is a good idea, and violinist Susanna Ogata and fortepianist Ian Watson deliver a fine, vigorous performance..."
"... it is so precisely done, with such vigorous attacks and carefully calibrated balances, that there is an uncanny feeling of being close to how early audiences heard the work, and of how it was bursting at the seams with new ideas."
February 4, 2014
Beethoven Visits Cambridge
Violinist Susanna Ogata and keyboardist Ian Watson have inaugurated their Beethoven Project, performing the composer’s entire sonata literature for violin and piano and solo piano in a series of Boston-area concerts. I heard their first offering Monday for the Cambridge Society for Early Music at Christ Church Cambridge, where they played the Sonata for Piano and Violin no. 4 in A minor, op. 23; the “Funeral March” Piano Sonata no. 12 in A-flat Major, op. 26; and the “Kreutzer” Sonata for Piano and Violin no. 9 in A major, op. 47. The result was stunning: we were transported through sound to Beethoven’s time. I felt the master vivdly before me, as if playing his music his way on his own instrument.
Ogata, an accomplished local player of chamber music and orchestral music of all genres including jazz, played on a period violin with gut strings and a short neck. The sound was quite different from modern rebuilt Strads, lighter and richer in the mid-tones. It blended perfectly with the fortepiano. There were times when I could clearly hear all the notes but could not tell by tonal color which instrument had played them. This was wonderful—the instruments were together not just in pitch and tempo but blending in tone. You could have told them apart by vibrato, except Ogata used very little, and just as an ornament. It was made all the more beautiful for being rare.
Ian Watson is one of the more versatile musicians around Boston with many reviews in the Intelligencer including this interesting one. From England, he trained as an organist, winning many prizes, and plays keyboards of all types. Highly regarded as a conductor, he is artistic director of the period-instrument ensemble the Arcadia Players and Chorus, and is music director at First Parish in Lincoln. He has played and conducted seemingly everywhere, even for the Queen; I felt in the presence of royalty. In a talk before the “Funeral March” sonata, he demonstrated the enormous range of color and loudness that the instrument on stage could deliver, and then delivered that range and color in his performance.
Perhaps the star of the concert was the fortepiano, a copy of ones that Beethoven owned. It was modeled after instruments made by Walter & Sohn in 1805, with the addition of an una corda that Beethoven desired. It had a sustain lever activated by the right knee and a moderator lever that interposed tiny felt pads between the hammers and the strings to mellow the sound. I wish modern pianos had such a device; its effect was really beautiful. This particular instrument was built by Paul McNulty in 2000. After training in Boston, McNulty moved to Amsterdam 1995, and finally to the Czech Republic, where he could find the authentic woods he needed. This instrument of his is the finest fortepiano I have ever heard. The treble register is crystalline, bright and clear; when Watson played lightning scales, the notes glistened like strings of pearl. The middle range is darker while also clear, somewhere between clarinets and oboes; it could be powerful, even angry-sounding when pushed, and Watson, like Beethoven, pushed it hard. The bass was strong and buzzy like a trombone or an organ pedal reed. What astounding colors from a keyboard instrument! You could play a Bach trio sonata on it and be amazed you were not hearing an organ.
A major advantage of this instrument is the short sustain of the notes. On modern instruments, the many fast runs that Beethoven scores blend together. On this instrument each note stands out, as if it were popping off the page. We could hear what Beethoven was thinking and what he was hearing (he still had moderate hearing when he wrote opus 26, 1800-1801).
All of the pieces were revelations; I felt I was hearing them for the first time. The blend was extraordinary, as I say, the tonal and loudness range amazing, and the violence that could be elicited from that instrument ferocious. I could picture Beethoven breaking strings right and left. (None broke last night—better metal alloys, I suspect.) The “Funeral March” showed the fortepiano in all its colors, and Watson gave it a dynamic range from strong and majestic to tender and pianissimo.
I must end with kudos to the owner of the piano, Timothy Hamilton of Cambridge, who was busily touching up the tuning when we arrived. For the opening opus 23 sonata, both fortepiano and violin were beautifully in tune, surprisingly so for anyone familiar with a modern piano and a modern violinist playing with heavy vibrato. But by the end of the “Funeral March” sonata, the instrument definitely needed a brushup, which Hamilton lovingly gave it during intermission. The “Kreutzer” following, then, was everything it should be.
David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.
February 5, 2014
To the Editor:
Last Thursday night, in a concert presented at First Religious Society by Cambridge Society for Early Music (www.csem.org), some 50 local residents were privileged to hear two violin/fortepiano duo sonatas, as well as a solo piano sonata, of Beethoven performed on a fortepiano of historic design. For years, CSEM has offered a series of candlelight concerts in Carlisle, Weston, Salem, Ipswich, and Cambridge, with distinguished artists playing rare and beautiful instruments, at surprisingly low admission prices.
Last week, Boston violin virtuoso Susanna Ogata and renowned British fortepianist Ian Watson brought pieces written between 1801 and 1803, the years of Beethoven’s struggle with progressive hearing loss. The music could not be more poignant, the battle with adversity more heroic. The concert’s tour de force was the fiery “Kreutzer” Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 9 in A, Op.47. The FRS experience, with its candle-enhanced electric lighting, was thrilling: the music rocked the floorboards and transported us into the magical conversation between the soloists. No recording, no metropolitan music hall could deliver such a performance.
Ogata and Watson have embarked on a project (www.Beethoven-Project.com) to record their ongoing violin/fortepiano journey; this means the dialog is not irretrievably lost. Still, the live performance is gone. That is the ephemeral nature of live music—you had to be there.