Masterclass: Beethoven’s Spring Sonata | To concentrate


Everyone loves the “Spring” Sonata; you cannot find a more beautiful or respected piece of music. It is also a wonderful introduction to the classical repertoire for an audience who might be concerned about the inaccessibility of classical music. In some ways, Beethoven was meticulous: he was very careful with his notation, for example. But although he was stylistically consistent in the periods of his life, he was not consistent between one period and the next. The more we know about his music, the deeper our understanding of his intentions and his writing style at different times becomes. I’ve played pretty much all of his chamber music now, and it gave me a much more complete idea of ​​his style of composition. It also gave me clearer answers to some questions, like whether or not to take a turn at the end of a certain trill.

The soloist

Name: James ehnes

Nationality: Canadian

Studied with: Francis Chaplin, Sally Thomas

Registered for: Chandos, Onyx, Analekta, CBC Records, Black Box, Sony Classical, Telarc


In the Spring Sonata, there aren’t too many questions to ask: it’s remarkably crisp and clear, and Beethoven takes great care to write exactly what he wants. But there are things that performers forget: in the passage from bar 38 of the first movement, the descending notes are staccato eighth notes (♩); At bar 54, the ascending notes are staccato eighth notes (♪). They have different note values, but people often play them in exactly the same way. It’s a mistake: they’re written that way every time, and Beethoven didn’t do it by accident.

Sometimes people seem to think it’s more important that their interpretations are defensible than good, and that’s absurd.

James Ehnes playing

Another thing to avoid is an academic conviction that several sforzandos in a row indicate a crescendo. This often makes sense, as the musical line is moving in a certain direction – again from bar 38 in the first movement, for example – but that doesn’t mean it’s a ruler. Our first thought should be about what is musically effective. Sometimes musicians wonder if a dynamic mark is meant to apply to the first sixteenth note (𝅘𝅥𝅯) of a bar or the second, and sometimes these things make a huge difference, but to others you watch a manuscript and any idiot can see what it’s supposed to mean.

It’s a constant interpretive challenge to make sure you never contradict what the composer asked for, but also to make sure that you don’t protect yourself intellectually by doing exactly what is written on the page. It can be hard not to have this attitude these days, as we are all obsessed with the latest editions and musicological discoveries, but sometimes people seem to think that it is more important that their performances are defensible than beautiful, and so on. is absurd.


Much of this room is very smooth and lush; but it also alternates softness, sharpness and precision, as in bars 23 to 24 of the first movement. It is important that the right hand is not lazy and has real strength in the fingers. Be careful not to fall into the game only with sharp joints or with soft joints. One student problem that I often see is that the combination between the two is not as fast or precise as one would like.


We live in a time of recording where you could listen to a CD, put on your metronome, fast forward to later in a movement and say, “But they don’t keep the same tempo. ” We do not care? Nobody listens to music like that – that’s not what it is. As long as your transitions are logical and you’re playing a particular section at a speed that seems inevitable, then what difference does it make if it’s the same or a little different?

It is important that the right hand is not lazy, and that it has real strength in the fingers

There is flexibility in this sonata, as long as you don’t radically change speed from one moment to the next. For example, it is very natural to feel the opening of the first movement to a rhythm, and then the music moves on from bar 38. We just need to find ways to make this transition happen in a logical and natural way, that the music does not seem fragmented.


One recording of Beethoven’s sonatas that I grew up listening to is the complete set of Ashkenazy and Perlman, which has meant a lot to me since I was a little boy. At the time, I never dared hope to one day play the violin with this pianist, but Ashkenazy became someone I am very close to and I worked with him both as a conductor. and as a pianist. It’s fun to listen to this recording today, from a different point of view.

I also listen to Heifetz a lot: his playing has nothing to do with the way I interpret music, but it’s so convincing that there is always something to be gained from listening to it. Another recording that I think every violinist learning Beethoven should hear is that of Kreisler and Rachmaninoff playing the Eighth Violin Sonata (see box).

Beethoven Ovation CD

Listening recommended

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas

Itzhak Perlman (violin) Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)

DECCA 0289 421 4532 (4 CDS)

CD Jascha Haifetz Beethoven

Jascha Heifetz plays Beethoven

Jascha Heifetz (violin); various artists

RCA 5440152 (9 CDS)

Large chamber music CD

Beethoven, Schubert, Grieg: Violin Sonatas

Fritz Kreisler (violin) Sergey Rachmaninoff (piano)

NAXOS 8.110968

Interview by Pauline Harding

Read: Beethoven from the perspective of a string player

Read: Heifetz Cadenzas: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

Watch: James Ehnes plays Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 4, third movement

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