Clive Brown's edition of the complete Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano is one of many Bärenreiter Urtext editions of Beethoven's music published in time for the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the composer's birth in 2020. It is only the second modern critical edition of this repertory, and it comes more than forty years after Sieghard Brandenburg's version for the so-called Neue Gesamtausgabe (Beethoven Werke, series 5, volumes 1 and 2 (Munich: Henle, 1974)), which did not include a critical report.
Brown's edition goes far beyond updating our current understanding of the text and source materials for the sonatas, however. As well as a critical commentary and historical introduction to the sonatas, it provides a wealth of information about historical performance. The edition has two violin parts: an urtext with minimal editorial intervention, and a performance part edited with historically inspired fingerings and bowings that often reflect practices that are ‘no longer familiar in this repertoire’ (xxxvi). The preface material includes an extended essay on historical performance practices associated with Beethoven's music, and the edition comes with an accompanying online performance-practice commentary, co-written with fortepianist Neal Peres da Costa, that includes bar-by-bar explanations of many of the editorial notations in the performance part as well as suggestions for further historically informed approaches. The edition aims not only to present a critically edited text for the sonatas, but also to enable performers to experiment with performance practices that ‘can help us reinvigorate [Beethoven's] music with some of the unfamiliarity and unpredictability that made it so challenging and exciting for his contemporaries’ (x).
The source materials for Beethoven's violin sonatas are not plentiful: in the case of the first four of the ten sonatas, the source nearest to the composer is the first edition, while some autograph and copyists’ manuscripts survive from Op. 24 onwards. Unsurprisingly, the text of Brown's edition does not differ substantially from that of the Neue Gesamtausgabe, though the Critical Report details many instances where the sources contain ambiguities or textual errors. One of the most consistent ambiguities is the placement of slurs, over which neither Beethoven nor the engravers of the first editions apparently took particular care. Brown, like the previous editors of the violin sonatas, has therefore had to do a fair amount of interpretation in his notation of the performing parts, but his critical notes and occasional footnotes in the parts themselves often indicate plausible alternative readings.
The essay ‘Reading between the Lines of Beethoven's Notation’, which is presented in both English and German across more than sixty pages at the beginning of each volume of the piano part, presents an overview of evidence relating to the performing practices of Beethoven's lifetime. While information about historical approaches to ornamentation, articulation and tempo is commonplace in modern urtext editions of classical repertory, Brown's essay also outlines a wealth of information about nineteenth-century violin fingering and bowing practices. Much of this information draws from Brown's own previous research, particularly his book Classic and Romantic Performing Practice, 1750–1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), though its presentation here makes it readily accessible for violinists to apply specifically to the interpretation of the Beethoven sonatas.
The violin performance part and the accompanying performance-practice commentary are what set this edition most apart from other modern Beethoven editions. Since playing from a clean urtext part almost always requires a fair degree of decision-making, particularly in the case of string bowing, it is now relatively common for editions to present an ‘urtext’ part as well as an edited performance part. Usually, however, these editorial interventions are designed to aid the performer by suggesting practical bowings and fingerings without deviating too far from the original text. Brown's performance part, by contrast, more closely resembles the heavily annotated editions of classical repertory prepared by virtuoso performers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Brown's editorial suggestions apply many of the principles outlined in ‘Reading between the Lines’, including the use of portamento and suggestions for the execution of ornaments, and are also informed by later nineteenth-century editions of the sonatas by violinists whose lineage can be traced back to violinists known to Beethoven. One particularly significant editorial intervention is in the opening trill of the Sonata Op. 96, where Brown indicates an initial appoggiatura and a concluding two-note turn figure, contrary to the current performance tradition for this sonata, which typically omits both. For performers who harbour any doubts Brown includes a footnote that refers to both ‘Reading between the Lines’ and the performance-practice commentary, where he presents substantial evidence that a concluding turn would have been assumed by performers of Beethoven's lifetime.
Brown's suggested bowings represent the most extreme editorial intervention in the performing part. As well as indicating bowing and slurring patterns, Brown's annotations indicate which part of the bow the performer should use. ‘Pt’, ‘M’ and ‘Fr’ refer respectively to the point, middle and frog of the bow, while the parts in between these points are indicated with a horizontal line with a vertical stroke placed towards the left or the right. Brown uses a sign devised by Ferdinand David (1810–1873) to indicate the foutté stroke, or whipped upbow attack played from the point of the bow, a technique that is rarely used in modern practice.
Historical approaches to portamento and ornamentation can be readily absorbed into a modern performance style. Following the bow distribution in Brown's performing part, however, results in a performing style that is unfamiliar even to most violinists well versed in eighteenth-century historical performance practices. The violinist is frequently instructed to play detached notes in the upper half or at the point, which prohibits the off-the-string playing that is a staple of modern approaches to performing music from this time. Many violinists are likely to find the extensive bowing indications unnecessarily fussy and restrictive, and reminiscent of the method books and etudes encountered in a typical conservatoire training. Yet Brown frequently offers alternative options for bowing particular passages that result in very different execution. These help to reinforce the point made in his introductory essay that the edition's emphasis on historical performance practices is not meant to be prescriptive, but rather to be a starting-point for experimentation and ‘reassessment of inherited and acquired tastes’ (xi).
The 144-page online performance commentary presents comprehensive justifications and explanations for the editorial suggestions made in the performing part. Brown readily acknowledges the ‘obvious impossibility of reproducing a truly Beethovenian style of performance’ (xi), but he conceives of a notion of stylish performing practice that developed organically throughout the nineteenth century. His performing edition therefore draws extensively from later editions of the sonatas, the earliest of which is Ferdinand David's 1868 Peters publication, which appeared more than fifty years after Beethoven composed his last violin sonata, Op. 96, in 1812. By working backwards from later source material, Brown is able to provide far more detailed performance suggestions than is possible when consulting the performance treatises of the early nineteenth century, which typically describe bowing techniques that are most applicable to patterns of repetitive passagework.
The approach does, of course, mean that the performing practices reflected in the performing edition can be more confidently positioned within a mid-nineteenth-century tradition than with the practices of Beethoven's lifetime. Performers using the edition as a route to historical performance practices will therefore need to be mindful of the caveats spelled out in Brown's Preface, and also of the diversity of performance styles that Beethoven undoubtedly encountered amongst the early performers of the violin sonatas, from Ignaz Schuppanzigh to George Bridgetower to Pierre Rode. Scholars and performers may not always agree with Brown's editorial suggestions, and I am also not as confident as Brown that the evidence he presents about the use of springing bow strokes is ‘decisive’ in supporting his conclusion that Beethoven's violinists did not employ them in classical repertory (Performing Practice Commentary, 10). Brown is nevertheless consistently transparent about his decisions and supplies plenty of supporting evidence, and the edition is comprehensive in its engagement with current knowledge about nineteenth-century string performance practice. Through its ambitious appeal to performers to experiment with unfamiliar approaches to this repertory, Brown's edition rethinks the concept of a modern ‘urtext’ and has a great deal to offer both scholars and performers interested in historical performance practices of Beethoven's music.