Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata for piano and cello in G minor, op. 5 no. 2 (1796) [27:16]
Sonata for piano and cello in A major, op. 69 (1808) [26:35]
12 variations for piano and cello on “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s “Zauberflöte”, op. 66 [9:35]
Jan Páleníček (cello), Jitka čechová (piano)
rec. June, 2010, in Studio Martinek, Prague
ARCODIVA [no number] [63:51]
Beethoven’s five cello sonatas mark the coming of age of the cello as a solo sonata instrument. With the exception of cellist-composers like Boccherini and Romberg, cello parts in the Classical period reflected subordinate roles. In Haydn’s piano trios, and the early piano trios of Mozart, the cello was relegated to doubling the left hand of the piano. From the first of the Beethoven works for cello, however, the cello found its voice as an equal partner in a duo sonata. Beethoven was ever the restless innovator, and his cello writing evolves from the early sets of variations on tunes from Handel and Mozart operas to the last sonatas. This disc, by the Czech duo Jan Páleníček and Jitka čechová, combines two of the most attractive cello sonatas with one of the sets of variations.
Beethoven wrote the first two sonatas and the first two sets of variations, in 1796. The G minor sonata, the second of the five, is a work of alternately melancholic and energetic feeling. In the first movement an extensive slow introduction with Baroque-like dotted rhythms is succeeded by a restless fast section. The finale is a cheerful rondo in G major. The work features plenty of virtuoso writing for both instruments. From the slow introduction one notices how backward Jan Páleníček sounds in the balance. His part is a little more prominent in the fast section, but he still sounds as if he is struggling to be heard over čechová’s piano. The balance is particularly hard on Páleníček’s lower strings; they are hardly audible in the semiquaver accompanying figure he plays in the finale. The duo adopts a steady tempo for this movement, paying careful attention to Beethoven’s wide dynamic contrasts. The final bars are played with a flourish.
The next work on the recording is the A major sonata, the third sonata in the set. Incidentally it is no. 3, op. 69, not op. 69 no. 3 as the liner notes state; it is the only work given the op. 69 number. The sonata was written in 1808, which places it in Beethoven’s middle period, along with works such as the symphonies 3-8, the Violin concerto, and the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” piano sonatas. Like these works, the outer movements of this sonata are based on short motifs that are elaborated with great freedom. Its genial and energetic character make it one of the most attractive Beethoven cello sonatas. Páleníček enjoys a better balance in this work, although his lower strings still lack projection. He and čechová adopt a fairly straightforward approach, without extremes of tempo variation, which works well. In the second movement the syncopated motifs are not played too abruptly. Páleníček’s double-stopping is well managed, as are a very few expressive slides. The finale sees some really attractive playing, particularly in the question-and-answer exchanges between the instruments.
The variations feature the best balance of the disc; all of a sudden Páleníček’s part comes properly into focus. It is infuriating that this should happen with the least significant work of the three. The variations themselves are played with a relaxed charm, and čechová makes the most of the variations for piano solo.
The Beethoven cello sonatas have been recorded by many illustrious duos, including the historic Casals/ Horszowski, and Casals/Serkin. More recently we have had Tortelier/Heidsieck, Du Pré/Barenboim, and Ma/Ax, to name but a few. There is also an excellent set on period instruments with Anner Bylsma and Jos von Immerseel (Vivarte S2K 60761). For comparison with a modern instruments set I turned to the complete Beethoven music for cello and piano set by Zuill Bailey and Simone Dinnerstein (Telarc CD-80740).
This latter set is recorded at a much higher volume than the Arcodiva; the thunderous opening of the G minor sonata made me jump. As well as being louder, the recording on the Telarc set is far superior; Bailey never sounds drowned out by Dinnerstein. This may be due in part to her using a 1903 Hamburg Steinway; no information is provided about Páleníček and čechová’s instruments. It may also be that Bailey has the bigger sound of the two cellists. Given that they have been playing together since 1997, the confidence of their duo playing could also be a factor. Bailey and Dinnerstein’s Beethoven sonatas are “big” readings in every way, with the fortissimo passages given full weight. Not everything is thumped out, however, the more inward moments being played with great sensitivity and beauty. They take about a minute longer over the A major, but elsewhere their timings are very similar to Páleníček and čechová.
The first time I played Bailey and Dinnerstein’s A major sonata I found their tempo variations a bit finicky, but I liked it more this time through. Their set would get my recommendation over Páleníček and čechová. The Czech duo’s straightforward approach is appealing, though, and those who like performers to “just play the notes” would especially enjoy it. Unfortunately the drawbacks of the recording make it difficult to recommend this set in the face of such strong competition.
Straightforward but sensitive performances let down by a recessive balance for the cello in the sonatas.