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Viktoria Mullova - Beethoven Sonatas 3 & 9

Boston Globe September 5, 2010
BEETHOVEN VIOLIN SONATAS Viktoria Mullova, violin; Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano Onyx Classics There probably aren’t many cities in the United States where a fortepianist could build up a robust following, but Boston is one of them, and Kristian Bezuidenhout is the one to follow. This young, prodigiously talented South African-born musician seems to appear at least once on every Boston Early Music Festival season, inevitably winning over crowds with his remarkably sensitive approach to period instrument performance.

Bezuidenhout’s latest disc is a recording of Beethoven Violin Sonatas with the Russian-born violinist Viktoria Mullova — and it’s excellent. He plays an Anton Walter und Sohn instrument from 1822; she equips her 1750 Guadagnini with gut strings and uses a transitional bow. Taken together, the palette of sonorities they create and the sheer resourcefulness of the playing produce a mercurial and wonderfully fresh rendition of perhaps the best known violin sonata in the entire repertoire, Beethoven’s "Kreutzer’’ Sonata, alongside the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 3.

In both works, Mullova’s playing has all the virtuosity you would expect while also an appealingly earthy, gritty quality and a razor-sharp intensity of expression. Bezuidenhout turns his instrument’s limitations — its modest sonic footprint, fast decay of sound, and uneven registers — into strengths that allow for clear and brilliantly distinctive moods and colorations. His playing never competes with Mullova’s but complements it with nuances and subtleties, especially in the instrument’s lower dynamic range.

In the "Kreutzer,’’ the volatile outer movements lurch and swerve in ways that keep the ear engaged even if you know where the music is going. This is Beethoven’s gloriously bumpy journey ventured without the shock absorbers and high polish of modern instruments — and all the more exciting for it.


MusicWeb International 19.08.2010

Recording of the Month

'Not since watching the classic 1969 TV documentary of Schubert's Trout Quintet performed by barenboim, Zukerman, Perlman, Du pre and Mehta have I enjoyed a performance containing as much sheer joy....this incisive partnership (Mullova and Bezuidenhout) play with brio and spontaneity giving the impression of a live performance. The artist's endeavours are complemented by close and detailed sound. This is by no means the only occasion that these sonatas have been recorded on period instruments but this stunning ONYX release is the first that can compete with the very best of the established accounts'

Michael Cookson

Gramophone September 2010

The sound, in these familiar pieces, has startling clarity and range of colour. In the opening Allegro of  Sonata No.3, for instance, we hear clearly how each of the piano's registers has a different tonal character - some left hand passages that often appear ungainly on a modern instrument emerge here as with a rich, bassoon-like timbre....Mullova's tone has enough variety and character not to need more than occasional touches of vibrato. The high spot is the first movement of the Kreutzer, which combines excitement and passion with especially clear articulation.

Duncan Druce

The Strad,  July/August 2010

....not a tasteless moment occurs in these accounts...in short, an 'outstanding' release.

BBC Music Magazine September 2010 

Performance ****

Recording ****

Even today there appear to be  few star violinists prepared to give gut strings and a 'period' approach a try. Viktoria Mullova has not only been doing this for years, but also shows a profoundly un-diva-ish appreciation of the way the violin and the piano changes in these sonatas. So in the earlier sonata it's Bezuidenhout 's agility and and minute clarity of articulation that dominate, while Mullova responds beautifully enough, but often with surprising discretion.Right from the start of the Kreutzer Mullova steps centre stage, as Beethoven obviously meant her to. the relationship between these two players - both strong personalities - adds considerably to the excitement in the first movement

The Times 11.06.2010 ****

By now music lovers should be used to the sound of the violinist Viktoria Mullova playing with gut strings and an antique-style bow. A tone gritty but bright, note and phrases crackling with fire:for six years or so these have been regular features of her recordings and concerts with period instrument musicians. It seems strange to recall that the music industry once dubbed her the 'Ice Queen' for the chilled beauty of her playing and her immobile onstage posture. But now Mullova is older, independent and liberated.

She's not the only source of sparks in this CD of two Beethoven violin sonatas, the Kreutzer (the greatest of all) and the early. boisterous Op12 No.3. Please welcome Kristian Bezuidenhout, from South Africa, a fortepiano specialist of sparkling powers, who plays an extremely characterful 1822 instrument from the Vienese company of Anton Walter. Down at the bottom it growls like a bear, up at the top it sings like a bird. In the middle it's a velvet red wine.

The piano's clipped attack is amazing:when Bezuidenhout prances through Beethoven's fancy runs you almost feel giddy. And, being a studio recording, we're spared the fortepiano's chief downside:the need for constant retuning.

Time and again the two players strike the most telling contrasts. Take the adagio movement in Op12 No3, in which the wiry sunshine of Mullova's 1750 Guadagnini comes gorgeously cradled in the piano's cotton wool. Mullova and Bezuidenhout work just as well making their tones blend:the central variation movement in the Kreutzer rejoices in the most delicate colouring, the subtlest of touches.

Above all, the fortepiano and the gut-stringed violin bring extra excitement, danger even , to Beethoven's music, never designed for purring quietly on a shelf. the nervous quality in Mullova's playing helps the first movement of the Kreutzer to gallop ahead, tense and turbulent. Bezuidenhout's fortepiano, extremely agile, almost frighteningly clear, makes its own match with the composer's volatility.

After the ear-opening CD conventional Beethoven performances with a Steinway and a steel-stringed violin are going to sound terribly docile.

Geoff Brown.  

The Sunday Times 30.05.2010 ****

Among mainstream big-name violin soloists, Viktoria Mullova is rare in her enthusiasm for period style and historical practice. For her first recording of Beethoven violin sonatas, she has chosen one of the foremost, and arguably the most brilliant, of today's period fortepiano players, the South African Kristian Bezuidenhout. He uses a beautiful, crisp, clear 'Hammerklavier' built by Anton Walter und Sohn in 1822, while Mullova has re-stringed her Guadagnini violin with gut, which she plays with 'lighter, transitional bow' (that is, of the classical period). It would be wrong to say that she adopts wholesale the stylistic manners of 'baroque to classical' specialists: these are big boned, exciting readings, played in a modern style, but profiting from the more transparent sound of the gut-stringed instrument and light bow, enabling a perfect balance with the delicate fortepiano. In the earlier sonata - designated for piano and violin, with the keyboard instrument, Beethoven's own, having very much the upper hand(s) - Mullova defers to Bezuidenhout's mercurial brilliance, but she greedily embraces every opportunity to display her bravura technique in the Kreutzer, written for the extraordinary mulatto player George Polgreen Bridgetower, from whom Beethoven later withdrew the dedication in favour of the French virtuoso Rodolphe Kreutzer. Mullova's drama in the grand concerto-like opening movement is offset by the supple lyricism of the andante variations and the irresistible brio and wit of the presto . Sheer delight.

Hugh Canning  

The Independent on Sunday 30.05.2010 'Outstanding'

Gut strings suit Viktoria Mullova. The violinist's exploration of historically informed performance performance practice continues with this remarkable recording of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata and Sonata in E flat with fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout. The pitch is dark, (approximately a quarter tone below modern concert pitch), the articulation bold, the textures volatile. The E flat's slow movement opens with a mere wisp of sound, the Kreutzer with chords of exquisite gravity. A provocative and highly expressive reading.

Anna Picard

The Daily Telegraph 29.05.2010

This new Viktoria Mullova release will probably raise as many hackles as it does roars of approval. Those who prefer their Beethoven on a modern concert grand a metal -strung violin should perhaps shy away, because Mullova here uses her 1750 gut-strung instrument, joined by the South African born Kristian Bezuidenhout on an 1822 fortetiano. But even doubters and period-performance sceptics might be persuaded by the sheer musicality of these performances, and by the fresh blend of colours that they encompass.Mullova is an interpretive force to be reckoned with. The path she has been treading towards a mode of expression appropriate to the music has been a process of discovery both for her and for us, most recently manifest in her recording of the Bach solo sonatas and partitas (ONYX4040). She has not given up on the big tone needed for Shostakovich, Sibelius or Bartok, for which her industrial-strength Stradivarious comes out of it's case. But there is no doubt that she produces an intimate, warmer sound for these two Beethoven sonatas, while losing nothing of that crisp articulation, emphasis and textural animation for which her other persona is famous. There is a real sense here of a musician doing something she believes in, not for any narrow 'authentic' purpose but because it brings the music to life in a new way. The mellow timbre of the fortepiano is a limpid companion toMullova's expressive legato lines, and has the capacity to buoy up her more ebullient flights with airy effervescence. Concentration and seriousness of intent in the playing of these sonatas are also compelling features of a gratifying disc that commands the closest of attention

Geoffrey Norris 

The Observer 23.05.2010

It opens like a Bach solo, unfolds like a symphony, and finally sweeps all before it with titanic power: Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata is one of the miracles of the repertory, (as Tolstoy's homage acknowledged), and is here freshly re-imagined by  Mullova. Her tense, wiry sound combines ideally with the 1822 piano that Bezuidenhout can pound to its very limits without overwhelming her: there is beautiful use of the quiet dampened register, which, combined with pizzicato violin, sounds magical. The much earlier E flat sonata is perky and driven, with a hilarious final rondo that hints at Beethoven's revolutions to come.

Nicholas Kenyon