Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer” (CD review)

Also, Franck: Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano; Kreisler: Schon Rosmarin. Lara St. John, violin; Matt Herskowitz, piano. Ancalagon Records ANC 144.

Lara St. John is not your usual violinist. She’s more daring than most, more apt to take chances. Not that she reinvents the music she plays nor distorts it with pyrotechnics or virtuosity for its own sake.

Ms. St. John says about herself and the two violin sonatas on the disc, “I’m a bit of a strange violinist, and when I was a kid, supposed to be learning all these normal works that folks play, instead I was learning Bartok’s solo sonata and Debussy, and Beethoven’s concerto and 10th sonata, and I just sort of missed some of these more ‘normal’ pieces. I learned both of these sonatas rather late in life--in my late 20s. When I first asked Matt (Herskowitz) to perform the Franck, which we have been playing together now for many years, I had performed it once or twice before, but had never been entirely free of a normal pianist’s ideas of ‘tradition,’ which I found hobbling and somewhat nonsensical. As for Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 ‘Kreutzer,’ I had been waiting for a pianist who would be able to keep up the extremes I envisioned for this piece, tempo and volume-wise. Obviously, old Ludwig wanted the pianist to improvise, which is what Matt does in the piano cadenzas.”

St. John began playing the violin at two years old and gave her first public performance as a soloist with an orchestra at age four. By five she was making frequent trips with her mother and brother to Cleveland, Ohio, where she worked under the instruction of Linda Cerone. By age nine, she won grand prize at the Canadian Music Competition. Then at age ten, she made her European debut with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon, Portugal, after which she spent three years touring the continent, including Spain, France, and Hungary. At age thirteen she entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she later received her degree. At age sixteen, she moved on her own to the former Soviet Union, becoming the youngest postgraduate student at the Moscow Conservatory. In that same year, St. John traveled throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where she encountered the Romani people, a cultural experience that would later influence her musical performance projects.

Eventually returning to her studies, St. John attended three different academies: the Guildhall School in London, Mannes College of Music in New York, and the New England Conservatory. Since then she has appeared with major orchestras throughout the world and recorded over a dozen albums. She performs on the 1779 “Salabue” Guadagnini.

Lara St. John
Her colleague on the current disc is pianist, composer, and arranger Matt Herskowitz, who, according to his Web site, “has produced a series of critically-acclaimed recordings, premiered his works in settings from New York’s Central Park to Germany’s Koln Philharmonie, collaborated with top classical, jazz and pop artists, and has performed at music festivals across the globe.”

So, first up on the program is the Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer,” Op. 47, written by Ludwig Van Beethoven in 1803. It’s called the “Kreutzer” sonata because Beethoven dedicated it to the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, who hated it and refused to play it. Kreutzer called it "outrageously unintelligible." Maybe the composer was a whole lot before his day, and that’s why Ms. St. John chose to record it? In any case, like the Franck piece that accompanies it on the disc, the Beethoven sonata is in the key of A, which explains the album’s subtitle, “Key of A.” The sonata became even more famous after Leo Tolstoy published a novella called The Kreutzer Sonata in 1889, and it’s been popular ever since.

One can hear from the outset why Kreutzer refused to play Beethoven’s sonata. It’s extremely complicated and takes virtuosic skill to pull off. Ms. St. John does it with seemingly effortless skill. Beethoven wrote the piece as he was becoming ever more acutely aware of his impending deafness. Maybe he was angry, and the often tumultuous music reflects it. Beethoven appears to structure the whole first movement as an argument between the violin and piano, with each instrument holding its own. Listening to St. John and Herskowitz play it, one can practically see the ensuing battle going on, and it’s both a stimulating clash and a joy to hear. The central Andante and Variations come as a gentle, needed respite, with the performers at restful ease, even when the spirits get more lively. The work ends on a relatively brief Presto, so expect a sprightly and festive finish.

After the Beethoven is the Sonata for Violin and Piano, written by the composer, pianist, and organist Cesar Franck in 1886. It’s a familiar sonata, one you may recognize, and it’s considered by many music critics as one of the finest sonatas of its kind ever written. It became so popular, in fact, that it has seen any number of transcriptions for other instruments, as well as an orchestral version. But it’s nice to hear the original.

Needless to say, St. John and Herskowitz have the measure of the work. Supposedly, Franck’s four movements represent the four stages of life: birth, youthful passion, tragedy, and joyous acceptance. Unlike the Beethoven, the conversation between the violin and piano is rapt and rapturous. The performers create a mood that is totally captivating, wholly delightful, and, like the music, flawlessly triumphal.

The program concludes with the little Schon Rosmarin (“Lovely Rosemary”), published by the Austrian violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler in 1905. As expected, it’s a charming rendition.

Producers Lara St. John, Stephen H. Judson, and Martha de Francisco and engineer Martha De Francisco recorded the music at the Fraser Performance Studio of WBGH’s Educational Foundation, Boston, Massachusetts in November 2017. The violin sound is crisp and extremely well detailed; and the piano is big and warm, just as though they were in your listening room with you. The two instruments complement one another, and the sound does both of them justice. You can hear every nuance of the music with this kind of definition.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa