Music Reviews

Review – Beethoven’s Testaments of 1802

It is like looking at a Rembrandt after the grime of the ages has been removed

When I came more or less by chance across this 2L release, I didn’t know the performing violinist, Ragnhild Hemsing, nor her piano partner, Tor Espen Aspaas. I hesitated, believing that good readings of Beethoven’s Sonatas were the ‘chasse gardée’ of the Great and the Famous. But curious as I am, I gave it nonetheless a listen and, lo and behold, I was completely taken by surprise. 

My shelves are not short of recordings of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas, and some of these are very good indeed. To find out why I was instantly impressed, I took the risk to compare Ragnhild with Isabelle van Keulen (Challenge Classics CC 72650). Her readings of both 8 and 9 are nigh perfect, played with confident distinction built on years of performing practice. Just like one would expect from a violinist having earned so many laurels.

By contrast, listening to Ragnhild’s approach, technically as good as any, a frank and spontaneous picture emerged. It was like looking at a Rembrandt painting after the grime of the ages had been removed. A vibrant colour palette with refined detail, catching with youthful freshness, yet thoroughly mature in its characterful expression. 

The purest form of interpretation

Asking myself what it was that drew me so irresistibly into these readings, it occurred to me that they went beyond playing the music and were in fact telling a story; the story behind ‘The Testaments of 1802’. 

“… From my childhood my heart and mind motivated me to be kind and friendly, while I was also driven by a determination to achieve great things”. (Do read all about it in Tor Espen Aspaas’s excellent liner notes). 

A photograph taken at the recording session.

Playing at times impressively vivid and then again with much intuitive tenderness, convincingly conveying the conflicting elements that must have fought for supremacy in Ludwig’s creative mind, Ragnhild Hemsing and her companion Tor Espen Aspaas at the piano, have set down narrative versions of both Sonatas, whether they be the exuberant tale of the eight or the passionate story of the ninth. Isn’t that the purest form of interpretation? 

Ragnhild touched me with an almost hesitating, deeply felt tenderness, like a mother singing for her child, at the start of the second movement of the Kreutzer Sonata, as well as the buoyant optimism that follows. It’s just an example of how she catches the listener’s attention. There many are more memorable elements. But rather than addressing each and every one, I suggest those interested find out for themselves. It is illuminating to learn to what extent the accounts of Hemsing and Aspaas shed a different light on these so well-known and often recorded Sonatas. Chances are that you will be just as surprised as I was.

With this example, Rodolphe Kreutzer may have played it after all

It is said that the dedicatee of the ninth sonata, the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, didn’t like it and that he for that reason refused to play it. Was it too long, or perhaps too difficult? Had he been able to listen to Ragnhild Hemsing and Tor Espen Aspaas, dancing, as it were, with ease through the complexities, making it sound so self-explaining, uncovering the composer’s anxieties and love of the art, he might have decided otherwise. 

Well, we may never know. But one thing we do is that it is comforting to realize that the next generation is waiting in the wings to take over from the ones the seniors amongst us grew up with. Let’s hope they will do the remainder as well.

By the way: Needless to confirm that 2L is, as always, at the sharp end of recording techniques, delivering a realistic sound pattern that is best listened to in surround. 

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2023 Adrian Quanjer and

Blog header photo by by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Written by

Adrian Quanjer

Adrian Quanjer is a site reviewer at HRAudio, with many years of experience in classical music. He writes from his country retreat at Blangy-le-Château, France. As a regular concertgoer, he prefers listening to music in the highest possible resolution to recreate similar involvement at home. He is eager to share his thoughts with like-minded melomaniacs at NativeDSD.


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