Beethoven was neither the first nor the only composer to write for the combination of cello and piano; composers such as Romberg, Dotzauer and Boccherini also made substantial contributions. Nevertheless none of these composers is of Beethoven’s stature, and the fact that he was writing for the cello must have helped establish it as a solo instrument. As in the violin sonatas, Beethoven’s five cello sonatas show clear stylistic and technical development. But all the sonatas - and the early sets of variations - show his determination to write for the cello as an equal partner to the piano.
The two works played by Maurice Gendron and Jean Françaix show the development of Beethoven’s style from the early G minor sonata to the mid-period A major work. The artists were in their thirties when they recorded these works, and as far as I can discover they did not record any of the remaining Beethoven Sonatas although they did set down two of the sets of Variations. Other repertoire in their discography includes Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, the Schumann Fantasy Pieces and Romances, and the Debussy Cello Sonata. It is a pity that they did not go on to record the rest of Beethoven sonatas, because, to judge by this recording, they were a well-matched duo whose playing has precision and plenty of zest.
The G minor sonata starts with a lengthy and imposing Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, leading into a restless Allegro molto. The duo launches into this movement in dramatic style, with fine legato playing from Gendron. He is quite forward in the balance. The generally rather constricted sound, together with a few patches of distortion at the climaxes, indicate the age of the recording. The Allegro molto is taken at a good clip but not at breakneck speed. The playing is of high quality, with Gendron’s arpeggio figures accompanying the piano being particularly delightful. The rhythms are crisp, and Beethoven’s trademark dramatic pauses are given their full weight. This is vigorous stuff that generates quite a bit of tension and a notably “live” feel.
The third Sonata gets off to a fine start with a warmly played solo phrase from Gendron. Again there is no skimping on the pauses; these players were counting. The exposition repeat is not observed. The syncopation in the Scherzo is played with an infectious rhythmic alertness that had me tapping my foot. The brief Adagio cantabile is tender, and leads straight into the final Allegro vivace. The tempo that Gendron and Françaix adopt certainly lives up to the marking, with a sense of contained excitement that occasionally bubbles over. The players nip at each other’s heels as they scamper towards the end; a few slurred notes from Françaix don’t detract from the excitement. This is a performance that radiates enjoyment as few other recordings of these works. The recording is a bit better than in the G minor sonata, with a noticeable bloom on the treble of the piano.
Zuill Bailey and Simone Dinnerstein’s set of the complete Beethoven cello and piano music on Telarc offers very sensitive and assured results. Dinnerstein plays a 1903 Hamburg Steinway, which helps her achieve a natural balance with Bailey, and the recording is streets ahead. Their interpretations are more searching than those of Gendron/Françaix, and slow down more often to explore a particular phrase. As a result they tend to take longer over the works; their G minor sonata, for example, takes 25:40 as against 22:20 for the French duo. Bailey/Dinnerstein’s approach to the A major Sonata was a bit finicky, taking almost seven minutes longer than Gendron/Françaix, although some of this goes on the exposition repeat in the first movement. While I feel that the Bailey/Dinnerstein set is one of the best overall on modern cello and piano, I prefer Gendron/Françaix in the A major Sonata, which I think is an outstanding example of duo playing.