"Having performed together since childhood, [the Orfeo Duo's] sense of ensemble and communication is impeccable.... One of the selling points of this set is that these are unedited performances. The decision to forgo editing shifts the priority from creating an idealized interpretation to one of spontaneity and investigation. Indeed, the performances reveal raw, instinctive conversations. What we lose in editorial polish, we gain in emotional directness. These are singularly passionate performances, and it is their honesty that binds the set together-- an undeniable synergy that is totally in keeping with Beethoven's confidence in the creative spirit." -- Mark Zaki, Early Music America, Summer 2012
The Orfeo Duo, sister and brother Vita and Ishmael Wallace, are known for their close rapport with each other, power of communication, and creative programming. They've performed together since childhood, giving concerts and leading workshops throughout the Americas and in Europe. The duo has also made numerous recordings, including an unedited recording on original instruments of the complete sonatas of Robert Schumann, featuring the Frederick Historical Piano Collection's 1846 Streicher piano.
Since 2003 Vita and Ishmael have devoted much of their creative energy to What a Neighborhood!, which celebrates their own neighborhood of Morningside Heights and West Harlem primarily through the music of living local composers, encouraging and inspiring composers, fostering appreciation of new American music, and nurturing a vibrant community that includes all the diversity of the area.
Vita plays baroque violin in Anima, ARTEK, the Dryden Ensemble, and Foundling (a baroque orchestra) and is a frequent guest artist with other early music ensembles. Ishmael is deeply involved in collaborating with singers and has won many national competitions as a composer.
The Frederick Historical Piano Collection in Ashburnham, MA, is home to over 25 grand pianos made between 1790 and 1928 of the types known to and preferred by composers from Haydn and Beethoven through the French Impressionists. Visitors may play them or hear them played at the Study Center and in concerts each Spring and Fall at the Ashburnham Community Church.
Most of Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano were written early in his life, between 1797 and 1803, a time of great awareness of the power of the human spirit and of the artist’s role as prophet of that spirit. In France the Revolution had awakened hopes for freedom and overthrown the old order; in Germany the poet Novalis wrote, “Life must not be a novel that is given to us, but one that is made by us.” Every listener to Beethoven’s music feels this new assertiveness. Beethoven’s power is usually described in terms of an individual’s defiance of Fate, but there are so many more dimensions to it than this alone.
There are similarities in form among the sonatas, and yet each one— indeed each movement— is unique. It is interesting to compare sonatas in the same key, or slow movements, or follow the appearances and disappearances of scherzi, the “joke” movements that Beethoven often substituted for minuets. The slow movements of Opus 23 and Opus 30 #3 are intriguing mixtures of slow movement and scherzo, slow movement and minuet.
We are happy to present the first eight sonatas in the groups in which Beethoven composed them, writing several at a time. The sketches for the three Opus 30 sonatas are also intermingled with sketches for the last movement of Opus 47, because it was originally composed for Opus 30 no. 1. The new setting for this Presto was written for George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, a brilliant young violinist of mixed parentage: Polish and West Indian of Ethiopian descent. Beethoven jokingly inscribed the hastily copied-out score: “Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e conpositore mulattico.” There actually seems to be some truth in the inscription: the piece is a “big, crazy” half-concerto, half-sonata; half-major, half-minor; half-lofty, half-virtuosic-nonsense. Unlike most chamber music of the time, written for private enjoyment, this sonata was designed for public performance, at an eight AM concert in the Augarten. (After an argument with Bridgetower, Beethoven re-dedicated the sonata to the admirable French violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer, who considered it incomprehensible and never played it.)
The last sonata, Opus 96, was actually the first we learned together. We were delighted to discover that it was especially written to suit another French violinist, Pierre Rode, who premiered it (privately) with Beethoven’s student and patron Archduke Rudolf of Austria in 1812. A few days before, Beethoven wrote to the Archduke:
"I have not hurried unduly to compose the last movement merely for the sake of being punctual, the more so as in view of Rode’s playing I have had to give more thought to the composition of this movement. In our Finales we like to have fairly noisy passages, but R. does not care for them— and so I have been rather hampered. — However, everything ought to go off well on Tuesday."
So perhaps we have Rode to thank for the Adagio that seems to drop down from heaven near the end of the piece.
For these recordings, Ishmael played the splendid Viennese Katholnig piano (c. 1805-1810) in the Frederick Historical Piano Collection. It belonged to the Esterhäzy family, and it is possible that Beethoven himself played it on a visit to the Esterhäzy palace at Eisenstadt in 1807! The Katholnig’s full and rich tone was the last kind of piano sound Beethoven was able to fully hear before becoming severely deaf.
Vita chose to play her 1706 Albani violin in a period set-up with gut strings. She used a replica of a svelte 1720’s bow for most of the sonatas: not only would such bows still have been in use in Vienna but also it is a joy to play the music with one. For Opus 30 no. 2, Opus 47, and Opus 96 she used a replica of one of the powerful Revolution-era French bows beginning to appear in Vienna at the turn of the century under the influence of violinists such as Bridgetower, Kreutzer, and Rode.
We delighted in the sounds of these instruments and the perfect balance between them. At times we felt that the music was calling on us to play very much at the edge of the instruments’ capacity, however. Early reviews of the Opus 12 sonatas remind us that even in the early sonatas Beethoven was pushing the boundaries of Classical harmony. Sometimes he leaps the boundaries of meter, using accents to leave the listener excitingly confused. Beethoven’s own playing was reported to be not only more powerful and brilliant but also much more sustained and legato than his contemporaries’. His long slurs forced us to push the boundaries of our ability to sustain on both instruments.
This recording was conceived and made possible by a long-time friend of the Frederick Piano Collection. We are deeply grateful for his support. Our anonymous benefactor suggested that we use complete, unedited takes of each movement, and we decided to take the challenge in a spirit of exploration! Live performances inevitably include both revelations and infelicities. The challenge of recording without editing shifted our priorities from technical correctness to inspiration and flow (or, as one friend put it, exuberance and reckless abandon), encouraging us to emulate Beethoven’s disdain for punctilio and his trust in the creative spirit.
-- Vita and Ishmael Wallace