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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete works for piano and cello
CD 1
Sonata for Piano and Cello Op.5 No.1 in F major (1796) [25:54]
Sonata for Piano and Cello Op.5 No.2 in G minor (1796) [28:58]
Twelve Variations on ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus WoO45 (1796) [13:05]
Twelve Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op.66 (1796) [10:24]
CD 2

Sonata for Piano and Cello Op.69 (1807-08) [27:58]
Sonata for Piano and Cello Op.102 No.1 (1815) [15:19]
Sonata for Piano and Cello Op.102 No.2 (1815) [20:50]
Seven variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte WoO46 (1796) [10:10]
Menahem Pressler (piano)
Antonio Meneses (cello)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, 18-22 December 2007
AVIE AV2103 [78:58 + 74:54]

Experience Classicsonline

 

The distinguished cellist Antonio Meneses returns to Avie for this complete set of Beethoven works, having already recorded well-received discs of Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Schubert as soloist and with pianist Gerard Wyss. Now he joins forces with Menahem Pressler, a founding member of the Beaux Arts trio, and a pianist with about as much chamber music experience as anyone on the planet. Meneses has been a member of this trio since 1998, so these players know each others style and strengths very well indeed, and this combination always has to be an odds-on favourite for providing something just a little bit special.

Receiving this release was something of a surprise, as it isn’t the kind of thing I normally make a punt for when sifting through lists of review discs. My shelves aren’t exactly groaning with comparison discs, though this is probably since I still have a mint Philips LP box of Rostropovich and Richter playing the Beethoven Sonatas in 1961 - 835 182/83 AY for antique number fans. This fabulous recording is now available as a CD twofer, and is still something of a benchmark in this repertoire. My occasional thirst for this music considered sated by this proud relic of a bygone age, I’ve neglected these works more than somewhat, but find my interest re-invigorated by the noble performances in this set.

Concise but useful notes by Stephen Pettitt tell us most and more of what any casual listener needs to know about these pieces. The earlier sonatas still possess a Haydnesque grace, despite Beethoven’s reluctance to cling onto convention. The harmonic journeys many of these movements take us on go beyond what would have been expected for this kind of chamber music and the very fact that Beethoven was taking the cello as seriously as a solo instrument as the violin is some kind of break from a heritage which had very little in the way of precedents – Mozart and Haydn both scoring zero as far as cello sonatas go. Both of these Op.5 sonatas receive sterling performances over which I have no bones to pick. What I like about the playing is that both musicians, without restricting anything by way of articulation or dynamic contrast, nonetheless place these works correctly as classical or post-classical pieces, refusing to overcook the content of the music simply because the scowling bust of Beethoven is printed on the cover. This is the younger, fresher Beethoven, embarking on a voyage of discovery – certainly with his own individual foibles and handbook on musical fingerprints and personality traits, but also a part and partly a product of the times in which he lived.

Disc 2 is the treasure house which contains the Sonatas Op. 69, and the two Op.102 works. By 1808 Beethoven was well into the mature phase which saw his fifth and sixth symphonies, and as one might expect, the Sonata Op.69 has outgrown the influence of Haydn. The expressive melodies and dramatic twists and turns are given every ounce of song-like phrasing, caressing and plunging by turns as is this were the arrangement of a revolutionary opera – aspects emphasised by moments of absolute static repose which can surprise even today.

The final Cello Sonatas Op.102 were written at a difficult time for Beethoven, and in a period of relative creative austerity, when among other things he was preoccupied with the task of looking after his nephew Karl. The moods and restless nature of the music reflect Beethoven’s problematic times with uncomfortable clarity, and the duo on this recording pull no punches, refusing to sweeten these often bitter pills with soft-focus playing. I had forgotten what a remarkable piece of music Op.102/2 is. The booklet notes describe it as "the composer as self-analyst, the beginnings, one might claim, of that movement which reached its fruition in Mahler and even Schoenberg." There is indeed a sensation of the cat wrestling strenuously inside its bag, if not entirely having been let out. The D minor chorale might see this analogy stretched as far as Shostakovich’s Op.67 Piano Trio, the solemn tread of its minor key possibly standing for even more than the composer’s own personal troubles. The musicians here are sensitive to the glow shining through in the central D major section however – you can’t have shadow without a source of light, after all. The finale is a wild and eccentric foray into the fugal world of the late quartets, and comes across like a wounded but powerful bird convinced it can still fly. I have yet to have anyone convince me of the intrinsic worth of these Beethovenian grosse fuge experiments in extreme counterpoint, but the music does hold a strange, almost morbid fascination.

The Variations in this set of works are anything but makeweights, but are lighter in character to much of the music in the sonatas. Beethoven did as much to expand the boundaries in the variation form as for the symphony, sonata and concerto, but the cello and piano variations seem more aimed at filling a need for recreational music than in the tumult of creation which is the Diabelli Variations. Both musicians delight in their joy at being freed for a while from all that intensity of expression, and their performances are transparent and filled with light and refreshing subtleties of contrast. Menahem Pressler in particular has a fine time with Beethoven’s piano writing, which often seems to turn the cello into a secondary accompanist, in the Mozart Zauberflöte sets in particular. The conclusion of this programme with WoO46 is a master stroke of programming after the turbulent finale to the Op.102/2 Sonata, and leaves us with a sense of healthy wellbeing.

Anyone collecting other discs from the Avie label with Antonio Meneses will know what to expect from the recording. The musicians are close, but not uncomfortably so – the listener is however certainly in the hot seat in an audience of one. The gorgeous Potton Hall acoustic lends its aura to the playing, but is relatively unobtrusive as a result of this intimacy. The detail and colour of both instruments is audible to the last drop of refinement, and as a result is a joy from beginning to end. I will of course be hanging on to my Richter/Rostropovich LPs, but having been dragged into the 21st century by this younger generation of musicians I don’t really feel the need to explore very much further. I have to admit to hearing just a little unevenness on occasion in Menahem Pressler’s 83 year-old fingers, with some twiddly bits like trills seeming slower by obligation rather than intent. The returns in musicianship however far outweigh any such comments, and any fan of the kind of playing which helped make the Beaux Arts Trio one of the all-time finest teams in classical music will want this disc. So, hands up: who’s not a fan...?

Dominy Clements

 

 

 


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