Now this is a release which instantly attracts my interest - beloved repertoire played by musicians heretofore unknown to me on a label I've not encountered before. I was excited to find a new label to explore, but was surprised to learn Evidence Classics has been around since 2017, and it appears this recording of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas was one of its first releases. This was actually recorded by Little Tribeca, whose Classical recordings can also be found on the Aparte label.
I recently discovered violinist Tedi Papavrami when going through a pile of older CDs I had never gotten around to listening to. And I fell in love with his playing on a 2010 Aeon CD collection which includes the Saint-Saens 3rd Violin Concerto plus various showpieces. There is a freshness to his playing, along with refreshing tempos, which instantly won me over. And, as is so often the case with this marvelous hobby, it inspired me to seek out more recordings from this musician. Hence, this review of his Beethoven.
Listening to it, I am once again struck with the freshness of his playing which I can't help but "love" some more. Papavrami's sound reminds me of Heifetz (and maybe Perlman) - i.e. slightly brighter than usual, with just a hint of nasality here and there (but much less so than Isaac Stern) - and completely different from Zukerman's wooden, textured voluptuousness which never varies. Papavrami's tone exhibits the classic Stradivarius sound, which is just perfect for this music.
I was actually surprised I couldn't find any fault with his Beethoven; I'm picky in how I want my Beethoven to go. For instance, I don't like the unremitting sweetness (and fussiness) of Capucon, or the lightweight fleetness of Faust. And I have no patience for the languid sleepiness of Szeryng or the leisurely Zukerman.
So approaching this new set, I was fully expecting to have been left wanting. But after listening to the entire 3-CD set, I was thoroughly enamored with everything I heard. So I decided to let it sit for a few days and try it again later.
Now, surely, on second acquaintance I would be more critical of it. I wasn't. In fact, I was even more enraptured with it. And later, after comparing it to some other sets in my collection, it easily rises to the top as the most glorious of all.
If I had initially thought there wasn't quite enough overt brio or ostentatious "molto" to the movements with those indications, listening again I can confirm tempos are definitely not an issue. As a matter of fact, they are about as perfect as it gets. There's plenty of velocity to an Allegro and more than enough presto and vivace when asked for. Tempos are invigorating and most assuredly con spirito, but never hectic or breathless. And in place of aggressive bowing and an overpowering piano, there is poise. And just a touch of lightness. Most notable, however, are a pervading joy and spontaneity - marked by pronounced observance of dynamics and punctuated accents. These qualities are extraordinary and make these pieces positively come alive. Slow movements are contemplative (if occasionally perhaps a tad too pensive) but tempos don't sag. There is a singing simplicity which is heartfelt and never weighed down with heavy emotion.
Speaking of tempos, compared to my previous favorite complete set, with Hungarian violinist Kristof Barati and pianist Klara Wurtz on Brilliant Classics (2012), timings throughout are very similar. And both are significantly quicker than the very leisurely Zukerman and Szeryng (to name just two).
Stylistically, pianist Francois-Frederic Guy is the perfect partner. I suppose it could be noted that he is slightly less commanding than some pianists can be. This may be partly the result of the recorded balance, but not entirely. While Mr. Guy plays with authority and his piano sounds full-sized, it's never in danger of overwhelming the violin. And as Papavrami's violin sings ever so delightfully, Guy responds with delicacy and impressive leggiero.
Lest you think this is lightweight Beethoven by my description of it, it most certainly is not. There is an abundance of energy and depth of insight to be heard everywhere. And as the set progresses, the glories continue to be revealed, and a certain gravitas becomes more apparent, as appropriate.
As we venture into the Opus 30s, the piano has gained a touch more prominence (to great advantage) and the violin bowing becomes a bit more muscular. (I suspect these later sonatas were recorded in different sessions, several months later.) Just listen to the 3rd of these (Sonata #8), which is absolutely exhilarating!
And then ... as we experience the Kreutzer (#9), we are immersed into the music with an involvement which is simply spellbinding. This may be the most famous sonata of the set, but it is infused with such scintillating freshness and joy on this recording, it's as if hearing it anew. As a matter of fact, I was so overwhelmed with it, I had to stop and play it again before continuing on to the final masterwork.
And with it we witness a disarming intimacy and deeply felt musical expression, concluding with a jubilant finale. A glorious conclusion to the set.
Fortunately, the recorded sound is excellent. Perfectly balanced with realistic immediacy from within an intimate, airy acoustic, the sound is clean, clear, dynamic and full of color. There is a lustrous radiancy to the violin tone and the unmistakable brilliance of a Steinway piano's upper octaves. Recordings of chamber music don't get much better than this.
The booklet writer, Helene Cao, observes that while violinists consider Beethoven's Violin Sonatas the crowning glory of their repertoire (and they certainly sound it here), they are generally "not held in the same high regard as the Piano Sonatas or String Quartets". That may be - and before hearing this set I would probably have agreed. But I've got to say most emphatically, I have never before heard such creative inspiration or engaging musical involvement in these violin sonatas than in the hands of Papavrami and Guy. As performed here, they surely transcend the piano sonatas and come ever so close to equaling the exalted supremacy of the string quartets. I've listened to this set 3 times already (which almost never happens with a new recording) and I still can't get enough of it. I can hardly give it more praise than that.
It is significant this complete set has been fit onto just 3 CDs, while many are spread out over 4. Swift tempos have surely been a factor, but Evidence Classics has prudently taken advantage of CD's full capacity; CD 1 plays for 73 minutes, CD 3 over 78!
If I have a quibble with the production, it is that not all of the French booklet notes are translated to English. The essay about the music is, but there is an additional section about the hall in which the recording sessions took place which is not. It is even more unfortunate there are no notes whatever about the performers. I observed from their picture on the cover they obviously are not youngsters. So out of curiosity I Googled them and learned that Tedi Papavrami, Albanian, was born in 1971, and Francois-Frederick Guy (not to be confused with Swiss cellist, Francois Guye, who, coincidentally, plays with Papavrami in the Quatuor Schumann) is French, born in 1969. I hear a corresponding maturity and depth of expression in their playing of Beethoven. Yet it's never prosaic. They bring a youthful breath of fresh air to these enduring works which tends to eclipse every other recording I'm familiar with.
This recording establishes a new standard for Beethoven's Violin Sonatas and can confidently stand alongside the Dover Quartet's superb set of his String Quartets (on Cedille Records) as some of the greatest Beethoven ever recorded.