Beethoven Violin Concerto LSO Live

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, op 61 (1806, cadenzas by Jörg Widmann)
Fragment from Violin Concerto in C major, WoO 5 (1790-92)
Veronika Eberle (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle 
rec. live, 11 & 12 March 2022, Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London
LSO Live LSO5094 SACD [61]

According to her biography, a defining moment of the career to date of the German violinist, Veronika Eberle came in 2006 when, at the age of just 16, she played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Salzburg Easter Festival. So, it seems fitting that for this, her debut album, she performs the same concerto with Sir Simon again on the rostrum. This performance uses cadenzas in all three movements which have been specially written for the occasion by the composer, clarinettist and conductor, Jörg Widmann.

The first time I played the disc I wondered if the opening of the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, was perhaps a fraction too swift. However, on further listening I came to the conclusion that I was mistaken: Rattle paces the music intelligently, achieving good forward momentum but allowing sufficient space in which the music can breathe. From her first entry (3:12) Veronika Eberle impresses; there’s strength and sweetness in her tone, the two elements nicely balanced. I admired the athleticism of her playing too. She and Rattle bring out both the poetry and the drama in Beethoven’s writing. One good example of the poetry occurs between 12:38 and 14:05, followed by a dramatic surge immediately afterwards. As one would expect, Eberle is fully on top of the concerto’s technical and interpretative demands and I enjoyed the performance as a whole, including the finely observed orchestral playing.

It was all going so well, until the first of the Widmann cadenzas arrived at 19:56. I think it’s worth quoting some comments by Widmann in a note which forms part of the booklet. I should say that I only read this note after the first time I listened to the disc. He says this: “Despite the tonal and formal freedom, it was important to me for everything to revolve around melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material from the Violin Concerto itself. Nothing was to overshadow Beethoven’s original, and yet I wanted to create a completely new tonal cosmos in which Beethoven’s themes could appear in a very different light.” The soloist dominates the cadenza, of course, but Widmann incorporates substantial parts for timpani and a solo double bass – it’s almost a trio cadenza. The cadenza is on a very large scale: in this performance it runs from 19:56 to about 25:02; thus, the cadenza runs for nearly a quarter of the length of the movement as a whole. You may feel that’s excessive. For me, the problems start after the timpani have joined the violinist (at 20:58). The timpani part is significant and, to my ears, very intrusive. But that’s not all. The writing for the violin is often aggressive and includes all sorts of modern technical effects. For me, the cadenza is completely at odds stylistically, though I acknowledge that Beethoven’s thematic material is given a thorough workout. (There are allusions also to the rondo theme of the finale.) I’m sorry to say that I find this cadenza ghastly and self-indulgently long and it made me forget completely all the good things that had preceded it. In that connection, it’s worth recalling Widmann’s comment that “[n]othing was to overshadow Beethoven’s original”: I honestly don’t believe he’s fulfilled that intention.  

The start of the Larghetto is hushed and very poetic. In the first three minutes or so we hear a good deal of poetic musing from the soloist and a very cultivated orchestra and that sets the tone for what follows. I found the performance beautiful and beguiling, but I can imagine that some listeners may argue that the pace is rather too slow and the music-making too expressive. There is another Widmann cadenza (from 9:30 to the end of the movement at 14:23). Mercifully, there are no timpani or double bass parts this time. However, pizzicato and harmonics abound in the violin part and the latter are surely stylistically anachronistic. Once again, I’m afraid I find the cadenza excessively long and stylistically completely at odds with the music that has preceded it.

The Rondo is full of energy and bounce and Ms Eberle’s playing is spirited and attractive. She receives sprightly support from the LSO. Widman’s cadenza begins at 6:52, lasting until 9:58. This time both the timpani and the double bass return; indeed, a large part of the cadenza is almost a duet between violin and bass. Here, Widmann uses thematic material from the outer movements as the basis for his cadenza. Despite this, once again, I find the cadenza terribly at odds with the rest of the movement.

Readers may wonder why I’ve devoted so much of this review to a discussion of the cadenzas. The reason is quite simple: Veronika Eberle offers an excellent performance of Beethoven’s own music – and, it would seem that the performances by her and her colleagues of the cadenzas are also very good. However, I’ve discussed the cadenzas in such detail because I believe that they will be make or break for most listeners. As will be clear, for me it’s a question of ‘break’, but I readily acknowledge that some listeners will relish having a contemporary take on this great concerto. There’s also a case to be made that Beethoven was a great musical radical and that a touch more radicalism is not inappropriate. The whole performance lasts for 52:39, which is lengthy by any standards. Of this, the cadenzas account for 13:05 and, frankly, they seem longer. Is this too much? I think it is, but listeners will make their own judgement. Let me be clear: I am in no way opposed to soloists or composers fashioning their own cadenzas for Classical concertos; that’s established practice. However, I firmly believe that cadenzas need to be stylish and not clash with the concerto they’re supposed to illuminate. I honestly don’t think that Jörg Widmann’s cadenzas meet those criteria; nor do I believe that he has met his own objective that nothing should overshadow Beethoven’s original. I’ve listened to the cadenzas carefully for the purpose of this review but having done so I have no desire ever to hear them again.

Once I’d finished listening to this performance, I thought it would be interesting to sample the cadenzas as performed in one of the other versions in my collection. Completely at random, the version I took down from the shelves was the 1955 EMI recording by the peerless Nathan Milstein with the Pittsburgh symphony and William Steinberg. It was only when I extracted the disc from its jewel case that I remembered that Milstein plays his own cadenzas. What a difference! The first movement cadenza, which plays from 17:42 to 20:08 in a performance lasting 21:13 in total, is full of dazzling virtuosity but it is unfailingly stylish and the cadenza does not jar with the movement as a whole. There’s not really a second movement cadenza as such, though Milstein devises a bridging passage lasting a few seconds as he transitions to the finale. The third movement cadenza, again stylish, lasts for less than thirty seconds. 

At the end of the day, Veronika Eberle gives a good performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto but it is fatally undermined by completely unsuitable cadenzas.

As a filler, we hear the surviving fragment of the first movement of a violin concerto that Beethoven worked on between 1790 and 1792 before abandoning it; so, the music comes between what we now know as the Second Piano Concerto and the First. In the booklet, Wendy Thompson tells us that there have been some attempts to finish the movement but what is played here wisely avoids any attempts at completion. The torso is marked Allegro con brio and consists of an orchestral tutti, followed by a passage involving the solo violin and orchestra and then another orchestral episode. Shortly after the violin joins in for the second time the music peters out rather abruptly. To be honest, the musical material is nowhere near as interesting as anything we hear in Beethoven’s first two numbered piano concertos, let alone in the Violin Concerto, but it’s an interesting little addendum to the disc.

The performances have been recorded in good sound with the soloist nicely in the foreground. The acoustic of LSO St Luke’s is warmer than that of The Barbican whence most LSO Live recordings emanate.   

John Quinn

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