Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Cello Sonata in C major, Op.102 No.1 (1815) [14:20]
Cello Sonata in D major, Op.102 No.2 (1815) [18:05]
Six Bagatelles, Op.126 (1824) [18:16]
Cello Sonata in A major, Op.69 (1808) [26:58]
Zivian-Tomkins Duo (Tanya Tomkins (cello), Eric Zivian (fortepiano))
rec. June 2008, Deventer, Holland
BRIDGE 9305 [77:47]
The three last cello sonatas and the set of Bagatelles Op.126 are played on authentic period instruments. This works really well for the sonatas - once you adjust to the sound. The rough excitement of the fortepiano and the raw, down-to-earth voice of the Classical cello both suit very well the ardent character of the sonatas.
First comes the Fourth, Op.102 No.1. It has a non-standard structure, as happened so often with late Beethoven. It can be described as slow-fast-slow-fast - or just as two movements, each with a slow introduction. The fortepiano is softer than the modern piano, which changes the entire balance. On one hand, most of the music is now dominated by the cello. On the other hand, small cello gestures and comments are not lost behind the wall of piano sound, and can be carried off without unnecessary pressure. This makes the entire "conversation" of the two instruments more natural and relaxed.
The tempi are fast, yet do not sound hurried. The playing is very well articulated. The overall mood is energetic and jovial. The cello sometimes sounds strained in the highest notes, as if a human bass voice tried to sing soprano. But the lower region has a wonderful growling resonance.
It all continues to the Fifth Sonata, Op.102 No.2. Its structure is more conventional, but the contents are inimitable late Beethoven. The cello of Tanya Tomkins is wonderfully versatile in the opening Allegro, switching between heroic gestures, lyrical musings and happy buzzing. The haunting slow movement is probably the most beautiful ever written for this combination. When moving from modern to period instruments, it loses its ethereal charm, but gains in directness and sincerity. At some points the fortepiano sounds "stumbling", as in the end of development section, and also right before the coda. This leads to lack of depth. Overall, this is quite a different experience from hearing a modern version: more shallow, with fewer aural effects. But also without schmaltz, which is good. The finale is a Baroque fugue, and all the voices are crystal clear. The performers play with swing and panache, and the movement ends way too soon!
After that we say goodbye to the cello for a while, and Eric Zivian plays solo.
If, when listening to the Op.126 Bagatelles, you do not enter awe and trance, then something must be wrong with the performance. This music is from the same celestial level as the late piano sonatas, especially the Op.109 and Op.110. Maybe that's the best way it can be played on a period instrument, I don't know - this seems to be the only version available. But the difference between what you get and what you can get is enormous. There are nice discoveries, certainly: No.2 has a harpsichord ringing, and No.4 changes its character under the new sonorities: the first section is jumpy and grumpy, while the second section brings in the voice of a bagpipe! But No.3 becomes too plain, and No.6 turns into a kind of slowish ländler. I consider this performance of Bagatelles a failed experiment. One might argue that Beethoven meant them to be "trifles", and that we shouldn't put into Heaven what belongs to Earth. Maybe. But I prefer my Bagatelles in Heaven.
All ends well, as the disc is closed by the great Third cello sonata, Op.69 - the Kreutzer of the cello, one of the works one could use to illustrate what Beethoven was about. This is glorious music, and the performance does it full justice, with a precise coordination between instruments, and inextinguishable drive. The voice of the cello is full and truly remarkable, especially in the low register. This is great cello playing, with emotions that are shown through the music, not through artificial effects. The piano is very attentive and cooperative. When the instruments play different motifs simultaneously, which happens often in the first movement, no one gets eclipsed by the other, and the musical texture is very clear - this is also due to the lighter sound of the fortepiano. The scherzo has a lot of imaginative dynamic nuances. The tiny Adagio is relaxed and good-natured. The finale is virtuosic and exuberant, but not rushed, and the coda is powerful and ecstatic. I still think that nobody brings out the joy and the fun of this sonata as do Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax on their CBS recording, but the Zivian-Tomkins Duo offers a very valuable alternative.
The recording quality is excellent, the sound is rich and has a lot of volume. The insert notes are well written and informative, with extensive descriptions of the works and of the performers. As a whole, this disc can bring a lot of fun, good humor, and real enjoyment from excellent playing. But I would skip the Bagatelles.