Discovering Alena Baeva with UltraAnalogue Recordings: part 2 – Beethoven & Mozart

Alena Baeva, image credit Vladimir Shirokov

In part 1 of Discovering the amazing Alena Baeva you found me tugging at UltraAnalogue Recordings’ Ed Pong’s coat tails like an over-excited kid, dying to get my hands on five tapes of virtuoso violinist Alena Baeva performing in Toronto. Having seen her perform live in the UK twice, and having had the immense pleasure of meeting her in person, I’m utterly hooked.

Now here I am in calmer mood, settling down with the first two of my five tapes, ready to do some serious listening. We’re starting with Beethoven and Mozart: two sonatas for piano and violin, featuring Alena with pianist Vadym Kholodenko.

Beethoven Violin Sonata No.5 in F Major, Op. 24 ‘Spring’ (Live), Purcell Ground (Live)
Violinist Alena Baeva & pianist Vadym Kholodenko

Of the five Alena Baeva tapes I have, this was the one I was most looking forward to. It’s the most popular of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas and, admittedly, the only one I’m very familiar with. So, like a kid who sees little point in delaying gratification, I dive straight into listening to this one first. And boy, it doesn’t disappoint. You can actually watch the live concert performance on YouTube – here it is below. And yet, still, the copy master tape is worth every penny. Yep, it’s that good.

But before I say more about the sound quality, a few reflections on the composition itself. As Alena rather humbly explains in her introduction, Beethoven actually wrote his ten sonatas for piano and violin, not for violin and piano. First and foremost, he was a pianist. He studied violin, since it was the practice of all great composers to master a second instrument, typically string. But the piano always remained his first love. This piece, Sonata No. 5, was published in 1801 and was dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries of Vienna. Apparently it was intended to be the second part of a piece, teamed up with Sonata No. 4, Op. 23. However for some reason they surfaced as individual works and received their own Opus numbers.

So, the anticipation is high as I rewind the tape and check/calibrate the output level on my deck. On which note, I’d always advise checking playback levels, especially with UltraAnalogue tapes, as Ed Pong likes to maximise dynamic range and signal to noise in his recordings by recording at 396nW/m rather than the more typical 250nW/m. This allows the lowest level signals to be recorded higher on the curve, to give more separation and definition. These low level signals allow the real ‘live music’ feeling to be present (including breathing noises, chair creaking, page turns, the air in the room…). Decca Records also recorded at this level (DECCA: Supreme Stereophonic Legacy, Larry Toy).

It’s a good practice, if done sensitively, but it does require that you also check your playback levels carefully otherwise you risk overloading your preamp input. For more on levels see my earlier article Tape operating level aka ‘reference fluxivity’: what’s it all about (and why should you care)?

So, back to Beethoven. In the classical world it was a typical practice to add a name to a piece, especially if it was becoming popular, and I believe that it was shortly after Beethoven’s death that this piece was named the ‘Spring Sonata’. It’s a fitting name. The overriding impression of the piece is of the return of warmth and light. Someone threw open a window and there’s fresh air aplenty, a pleasant breeze, sparkling sunlight dancing over a babbling brook, and the joyful sound of birds chirping as they flit and dive overhead, signalling the reawakening of life after winter’s slumber.

Beethoven may not have been a virtuoso violinist but his understanding of the instrument was insightful. The first thing that strikes me in listening to this piece, and which is now more clear to me than ever as I listen to it at this level of recorded sound quality, is just how well Beethoven wrote for both piano and violin. This is a sonata for both instruments equally (and I’m told the same applies to all ten), featuring equally creative and idiomatic writing for both instruments. Which, for my money, makes it all the more interesting – almost like listening to two musicians (or two singers, or even a duo of actors) who are at the top of their game and are performing together in a spirit of both collaboration and competition – almost sparring off each other, but generously – and loving every minute of it.

This is the first of Beethoven’s sonatas to feature four movements, although the third is so short (a minute or so) that it’s really more of a bridge between the second and fourth. The opening movement, Allegro, is flowing, lyrical, melodic, radiant – this is the movement that really captures the essence of spring freshness and flowering. The second, Adagio, is indeed ‘molto espressivo’ and deeply felt. After a slow, pensive opening the piano calmly yet authoritatively, and with great depth, seems to communicate directly with the soul, while the violin lovingly soothes and caresses the surface. The passion is palpable. The third, Scherzo, is a very short dancing movement featuring a game of ‘catch-me’ between the ‘stabby’ piano and slightly frenetic violin, which leads us into the graceful elegance of the fourth and finale, Rondo. Here, the piano dances more formally with the violin. Imagine a joyful, gracious ballroom scene and you’ll get the idea.

Having the opportunity to listen to this performance on YouTube gives me the opportunity to make a direct comparison and try to get across how the tape sounds different – and believe me, it really, really does.

The YouTube version is presented in good quality digital. In the sonata’s first movement, all of the elements are there: the joyous melodies, the contrasts between the piano and violin, the near-ecstatic mood of the emerging light and new life and warmth of spring bursting forth. Both musicians’ performance is exemplary and the piece is rendered with a perfect balance of energy and subtlety, verve and mastery.

Playing on my Studer A812

But (and this is a big but), having now heard the tape I can no longer watch/listen to the YouTube version without some feeling of loss. In fact even when I haven’t played the tape for a few days, the YouTube sound by comparison still seems muted, muffled, condensed, edited if you like. The piano sounds like it’s in a cupboard covered with a blanket; the violin sounds strangled.  Of course it doesn’t really, this is what most of us are used to. It’s actually a very live-sounding recording. It’s just that when you switch to the tape, there’s so much more to hear and feel. The violin has so much more….more tone, more depth, more body, more feeling, more colour, more life. You can sense each string, feel the bow, these sounds are subtle and yet utterly real and palpable. I can hear each of the strings vibrating in harmony together to make up each chord. The same is true with the piano. It’s now come out of the cupboard, thrown off its blanket and it’s dancing with the most sensitive dynamic contrast.

Don’t get me wrong, listening to the performance in a digital format is superb, there’s no doubt that these are incredible musicians, exquisite artists. But listen on tape and it’s as if you’re no longer listening to a recorded sound. You’re there.

The tape also includes the short ‘Ground in C minor’ by Purcell, performed and recorded at this same concert. Since the listening experience of the whole event is so akin to being there, this genuinely feels like an encore. It’s a charmingly lyrical for piano, played with extreme delicacy and passion by Vadym Kholodenko.

Mozart Violin Sonata No. 27 in G major, K379 (live); Milstein Paganiniana; Purcell Ground
Violinist Alena Baeva & pianist Vadym Kholodenko

I’m a big Mozart fan, and the man himself interests me almost as much as his music, so my first move on receiving this tape was to check out the background to the piece.

I discover that it was composed in April 1781 and published in the same year, when Mozart was in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg. It’s interesting to note that it was written in the spring; like the Beethoven, it feels very spring-like to me. Speaking of spring-like, Mozart was born in 1756, so he was just twenty-five when he composed this – and yet this is considered part of his (late) second set of ‘mature’ works!

It gets better still… turns out that Mozart wrote a letter to his father Leopold explaining how he composed the sonata “last night between eleven and twelve” for a performance for the Archbishop the following day (he wrote it in an hour!!). But “in order to be able to finish it” he only wrote out the piano part and retained the violin part, which he was to play himself, in his head.

Again, like the Beethoven, there’s an interesting context here in terms of the relationship between the piano and the violin and their relative status. In Mozart’s time, the violin part was still considered to be essentially an accompaniment to the piano part. However, over time, Mozart’s compositions increasingly moved towards a more equal relationship between the two instruments. Where I say ‘over time’ it’s worth bearing in mind that Mozart composed his first violin sonata at the age of six! From there he wrote about 35 of them, some of which remained unfinished. No. 27 is, as already mentioned, one of the later sonatas and it was written very much to showcase the virtuosity of both instruments and players. You can hear this very clearly in the way the piano and violin parts interweave and entwine and complement one other.

And so, it was in listening to this recording that I became really struck by Vadym Kholodenko as a pianist. Which gives you an indication of just how much the piece showcases both instruments – since I was already utterly enchanted by Alena Baeva as a violinist and it would’ve been all too easy for her part to dominate my attention. But this recording / performance really presents the two as an equal duo (which seems apt, given that Vadym and Alena are husband and wife).

As with the Beethoven, this performance is also available on YouTube. So in terms of auditioning for a potential purchase, you can preview the piece and the quality of the playing, the performance, for yourself. I’ll therefore focus here on some background and a bit of rambling about my personal take on how the tape sounds in comparison to the digital YouTube sound.

The violin sonata is formed of either two parts or three parts, depending on where you look / who you ask!

  1. Adagio – Allegro
  2. Theme & Variations – Andantino cantabile.
  • Variation 1 (piano without violin)
  • Variation 2
  • Variation 3
  • Variation 4
  • Variation 5: Adagio
  1. Allegrretto (thema da capo – coda)

For this particular performance it’s split into two parts, in which the opening Adagio – Allegro flow into one another just as the Theme & Variations flow into the Allegretto.

The Adagio starts with a gently, caressing piano which is beautifully recorded in a way that captures the full depth, warmth and colour of the instrument. The dynamic portrayal, the attack and decay, and the rendering of the natural ambience are all sublime. Soon the violin cuts in its with passion, but also a gentle sweetness, and more than a touch of melancholy, hope, and inquisitiveness. Then the piano lifts the mood and the violin follows suit, caressing the melody before the piano takes over again – and so continues the dance.

Obviously the level of detail in the tape (versus YouTube) gives a very different experience, and my attention is drawn into all kinds of captivating nuances. During the opening section, the piano really draws me in, especially the contrast between held notes and those that are stopped or damped quickly. Held chords almost ‘unfurl’ as each note adds to the previous, building the chord; somehow these held chords seem to ‘roll out’ of my speakers, filling the room with a harmonious colour of sound. And then the violin picks up the passion, with an aching, yearning feel.

As we move into the Allegro things get much more joyful; the piano plays a more upbeat melody, brimming with life and energy and the violin starts to really sing like a bird. You feel like the clouds have parted and the sun has come out. Leaves unfurl, buds open… here comes that sense of fresh spring air again. Again, the piano playing is really notable here: Vadym propels the song along with a pace but at the same time there’s a palpable delicacy and sensitivity. Meanwhile the violin is now deep and gutsy, full of textures and with real intensity. On tape, the higher notes are exquisitely sublime. They seem to soar and soar upwards, as if vanishing into the higher frequencies beyond human hearing – and they certainly put the ribbon tweeters of my Kerr Acoustic K100 loudspeakers to the test. On tape, the contrast in Alena’s playing is quite breathtaking – from heavy bowing to the lightest delicate strokes. The sound flips from powerful, rich and full bodied to subtly nuanced. Masterful!

I could ramble on and on, but you get the point. Whatever your digital AV set-up, listening to the tape is a completely different experience to viewing the YouTube clip. On which note, one more quick ‘woah’ moment to highlight… I think it was in Variation 4 (iv), in which the violin is plucked. The sound of that plucking violin is staggeringly real. Seriously: staggeringly.

The tape also includes Nathan Milstein’s Paganiniana (violin solo) and another performance of Purcell’s short ‘Ground in C minor’ (as also included on the previous Beethoven tape).

Final thoughts

So that’s the first two of my five Alena Baeva tapes given a good initial listening to. And boy, do they reaffirm my passion for the authenticity and fidelity of master tape. Those violin notes that soar up into the sky… they haven’t ever seen an analogue to digital converter, no DSP, or indeed even any analogue processing. These pieces are exquisitely played, on precious instruments of antiquity recorded, and recorded with the very highest level of fidelity and integrity. Alena Baeva plays on the “ex-William Kroll” Guarneri del Gesù violin of 1738 – on generous loan from an anonymous patron, with the kind assistance of J&A Beares. So thank heavens for purists like Ed Pong, who goes to such lengths to record its sound in its most natural form.

The sound is simply exquisite, rarely would you hear a violin like this: soaring, swooping, breathing, gentle, caressing, jaunty, enlivening, dancing, joyous, rushing, powerful, gushing, overflowing. When the score calls for a soaring achingly beautiful wave, Alena makes her bow do just that and Ed Pong captures it. I should perhaps say that the recordings do give a you a ‘warts and all’ experience of a live performance, it’s not all polished and sanitised so if there’s a cough or a squeaky chair here and there, it’ll be there on the recording. But I wouldn’t dream of suggesting attempting to remove such things. That’d be like preferring an air-brushed photo of a person over a real, live human being!

It’s quite something to think that Alena’s violin was already in use at the time this sonata was composed, and that the instrument, still going strong, is older than Mozart himself. Kinda blows my mind! As do these recordings.

And of course pianist Vadym Kholodenko is no slouch! He also has an illustrious career, has won many awards and plays stunningly. Again, the rendering of the instrument’s sound is fabulous: the percussive element, the timbre of the strings and hammers, and the body of the piano itself all sound oh so real and filled my listening room with a near-as-dammit physical piano.

Next time… three tapes of Schubert and Schumann.

Until then, stay safe and keep listening!

Find out more about / order the tapes –

Beethoven Violin Sonata No.5 in F Major, Op. 24 ‘Spring’ (Live), Purcell Ground (Live)
Violinist Alena Baeva & pianist Vadym Kholodenko

Mozart Violin Sonata No. 27 in G major, K379 (live); Milstein Paganiniana; Purcell Ground
Violinist Alena Baeva & pianist Vadym Kholodenko