Ludwig van Beethoven’s career was and still is boxed into early, middle, and late periods; the last three of his violin-and-piano sonatas, taken together, fairly race through those checkpoints. The year that separates the Op. 30 and Op. 47 sonatas, 1802 to 1803, is enough to cross from early- to middle-period Beethoven; his final sonata, a decade later, comes on the cusp of his late period. On Sunday at the Gardner Museum, violinist Corey Cerovsek and pianist Paavali Jumppanen, completing a multi-concert survey of the sonatas, evoked Beethoven’s biographical categories with sharp, brilliant demonstrations
The duo have previously performed and recorded the cycle; their effortless, thorough familiarity with the music was evident. They also think alike, pursuing string and keyboard versions of aggressive, precise clarity. In the Sonata in G major (Op. 30, No. 3), the result was playfully dangerous, rather like a polite villain’s cutting formality: the articulations honed to a point, the phrasing efficiently suave.
The final movement of the Op. 47 A minor Sonata (the “Kreutzer”) was originally intended for that Op. 30 set, and the performance had a similar cast, but the rest turned extroverted cleverness to the more clipped, ferocious eloquence of anger. Pouncing on accents, accelerating through possible sentimental traps, the duo scrupulously seethed. In the Andante variations, ornamentation and passagework were amplified into destabilizing prominence. The high heat rejuvenated the commonplace qualities of middle-period Beethoven: righteous fury, polemicized virtuosity.
Cerovsek and Jumppanen tipped the aggression back into something more reflective for the Op. 96 G-major Sonata. Ends of phrases were cushioned with a slight easing of volume and speed; even in fast sections, attacks were situated more within the beat rather than assertively on top of it. The space between notes became a lilt rather than an edge. Jumppanen’s light pedaling finally turned, in the Adagio variation of the finale, into a resonant haze.
It is a testament to Cervosek and Jumppanen’s stylistic and technical prowess that this felt compositionally inevitable rather than interpretively subjective. But any of the sonatas might have been played as feisty, or fierce, or wistful. To save a touch of melancholy for late-period Beethoven might be conventional but it is also, paradoxically, optimistic. It is, after all, one of the more reassuring stories we tell ourselves in the face of a finite existence: that we might get wiser as we get older.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@