Beethoven's Testaments of 1802 - Hemsing, Aspaas
Classical - Chamber
Beethoven: Violin Sonatas 8 & 9
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin
Tor Espen Aspaas, piano
1802 was the crisis year in which Beethoven the artist committed Beethoven the man to fate - and became immortal. He was beset with mounting problems: progressive deafness, strong feelings of alienation and the conviction that he was being excluded from social and official life in Vienna. During his stay at Heiligenstadt in the summer and autumn of 1802 he wrote testaments in words and in music that show his path ahead to his middle period, often called "the heroic". His Sonata no. 9 for violin and piano, the Kreutzer, is a defining work for the year 1802 and for Beethoven's heroic style. In sharp contrast is the high-spirited Sonata no. 8, but together - and particularly when considered in light of the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament - these two sonatas reveal something of the creative and existential struggle he was enduring. 1802: the year when Beethoven became Beethoven.
1802 was the crisis year in which the artist Beethoven surrendered to manBeethoven to fate - and became immortal. The problems arose for him with increasing deafness, alienation and feelings of being personally rejected and opposed in the Vienna public. During his stay in Heiligenstadt in the summer and autumn of 1802, he wrote verbal and musical testaments that show the way forward and begin his middle period, often referred to as 'the heroic'. His cross-border and dramatic sonata no. 9 for violin and piano, "Kreutzer", is a signal work for the year 1802 and Beethoven's heroic style. In stark contrast is the fresh and easy-going sonata No. 8, but together - and especially in light of the letter Beethoven never sent to his brothers, the "Heiligenstadt Testament" - they can give an idea of what creative and existential forces and counterforces were in games. 1802: the year when Beethoven became Beethoven.
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - January 9, 2023
There is no shortage of recordings of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas, many in high resolution. When I came more or less by chance across this 2L release, I hesitated whether or not to do a review, believing that good readings of Beethoven’s Sonatas were the ‘chasse gardée’ of the Great and the Famous. But curious as I am, I gave it nonetheless a listen and, lo and behold, I was completely taken by surprise.
I took the risk to compare Ragnhild with Isabelle van Keulen (Beethoven: Violin Sonatas 1-10 - van Keulen, Minnaar). Isabelle's readings of both 8 and 9 are nigh perfect, played with confident distinction built on years of performing practice. Just like one would expect from a violinist having earned so many laurels.
By contrast, listening to Ragnhild’s approach, technically as good as any, a frank and spontaneous picture emerged. It was like looking at a Rembrandt painting after the grime of the ages had been removed. A vibrant colour palette emerged with refined detail, catching with youthful freshness, yet thoroughly mature in its characterful expression.
Asking myself what it was that drew me so irresistibly into these readings, it occurred to me that they went beyond playing the music and were in fact telling a story; the story behind ‘The Testaments of 1802’.
“… From my childhood my heart and mind motivated me to be kind and friendly, while I was also driven by a determination to achieve great things”. (Do read all about it in Tor Espen Aspaas’s excellent liner notes).
Playing at times impressively vivid and then again with much intuitive tenderness, convincingly conveying the conflicting elements that must have fought for supremacy in Ludwig’s creative mind, Ragnhild Hemsing and her companion Tor Espen Aspaas at the piano, have set down narrative versions of both Sonatas, whether they be the exuberant tale of the eight or the passionate story of the ninth. Isn’t that the purest form of interpretation?
Ragnhild touched me with an almost hesitating, deeply felt tenderness, like a mother singing for her child, at the start of the second movement of the Kreutzer Sonata, as well as the buoyant optimism that follows. It’s just an example of how she catches the listener’s attention. There are many more memorable elements. But rather than addressing each and every one, I suggest those interested find out for themselves. It is illuminating to learn to what extent the accounts of Hemsing and Aspaas shed a different light on these so well-known and often recorded Sonatas. Chances are that you will be just as surprised as I was.
It is said that the dedicatee of the ninth sonata, the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, didn’t like it and that he for that reason refused to play it. Was it too long, or perhaps too difficult? Had he been able to listen to Ragnhild Hemsing and Tor Espen Aspaas, dancing, as it were, with ease through the complexities, making it sound so self-explaining, uncovering the composer’s anxieties and love of the art, he might have decided otherwise.
Well, we may never know. But one thing we do is that it is comforting to realize that the next generation is waiting in the wings to take over from the ones the seniors amongst us grew up with. Let’s hope they will do the remainder as well.
By the way: Needless to confirm that 2L is, as always, at the sharp end of recording techniques, delivering a realistic sound pattern that is best listened to in surround.
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.
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