Well into his 20s (in an era when the average life expectancy was still under 40), Ludwig van Beethoven was still defiantly showing off to his elders, at least to judge from critics of the time. “Overly exuberant inspiration,” remembered one. Beethoven “pile[s] up ideas without restraint,” wrote another, “as to bring about an obscure artificiality.” “It is undeniable that Mr. van Beethoven goes his own way,” admitted one critic. “But what a bizarre, laborious way!” That judgment was on Beethoven’s Op. 12 Violin Sonatas, which opened violinist Corey Cerovsek and pianist Paavali Jumppanen’s Sunday recital at the Gardner Museum, the first concert of a survey of all of Beethoven’s exercises in that genre. The duo created a contemporary analog of that brashness.
Cerovsek and Jumppanen previously performed the cycle at the Gardner during the 2003-04 season and recorded the sonatas in 2007. It's fair to say that they know this repertoire inside and out, and how they want it to go. On Sunday it went in high gear, whipping through the music’s turns with elegant relentlessness. There was some sonic contrast: Jumppanen’s opalescent clarity and imperturbable evenness of touch setting the table for Cerovsek’s more laser-like tone, polished into precise phrases. But both players pursued momentum — rhythms were fleet and unflagging, the notes following each other with the irrevocability of an epic domino tumble.
The effect was an updated sense of Beethoven’s confrontational exuberance. The players’ unflappable, unremitting virtuosity amplified Beethoven’s precipitousness — flurries of notes suddenly, exponentially proliferating — and his audacity, his motormouth passagework straining classical propriety. Throughout the three Op. 12 sonatas, playful back-and-forth turned obsessive and even absurd: a riot of trochees thumping through the finale of the D major No. 1, a game of imitated-motive brinkmanship in the A major No. 2. In the third of the group, the E major, the contrasts of articulation and volume became bigger, annexing the listener’s attention by staking out extreme boundaries.
But fast-forward three years in Beethoven’s life, and he had focused his ambition. The A minor Sonata, Op. 23, eschews the extravagant ornamentation of the Op. 12 sonatas for locked-in power. Jumppanen and Cerovsek again displayed hurtling preciseness, but here the virtuosity was inseparable from the structure, integral to the contrapuntal wiring. Beethoven might never have outgrown having something to prove, but the proofs became more fearsomely efficient.