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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Cello Sonata No. 1 in F major, Op. 5 No. 1 [24:30]
Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2 [26:12]
Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 [28:10]
Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102 No. 1 [15:33]
Cello Sonata No. 5 in D major, Op 102 No. 2 [19:41]
DuoLeonore (Maja Weber (cello); Per Lundberg (piano))
rec. 9-12 December 2013, 27-30 January 2014 Ref. Kirche, Seon, Switzerland
SOLO MUSICA SM210 [78:52 + 35:14]

In one respect cellists might appear to have the best deal where Beethoven is concerned. Orchestral conductors have his epic nine symphonies to contend with, pianists the monumental thirty-two piano sonatas, and even violinists aren’t let off lightly with the composer’s ten works with piano. So having just five sonatas for cello and piano and a few sets of variations to play might, on paper, seem far more attractive a proposition, and eminently more manageable to deal with.

As far as recordings go, an average dealer’s catalogue will probably include over forty CDs, ranging from complete sets of the Cello Sonatas, the Sonatas and Variations together, some instances where the piano is replaced by a fortepiano, to a number of individual discs featuring just two or three selected sonatas at a time, or perhaps coupled with a compatible work from another composer.

Even discounting all the latter CDs above, it’s still a pretty competitive and extensive market where sets of the Five Cello Sonatas on their own are concerned. Not only that, but most, if not all the great cellists for many decades, together with their choice of equally-talented pianist, have all made their mark here, starting with one of the earliest, yet arguably still one of the greatest collaborations ever, that of Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter back in the heady vinyl days of 1963. This is followed very closely, both chronologically and in depth of perception by Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff two years later. Although the remit of this present review is not to come up with the definitive all-time No. 1 choice, it would be wrong not to list here some other fine recordings since the late 1960s, by Isserlis and Levin, Casals and Horszowski, Du Pré and Barenboim, Muller-Schott and Hewitt, Onczay and Jandó and Maisky and Argerich – and still more besides.

Duo Leonore – Maja Weber and Per Lundberg – has been playing chamber music together for more than twenty years, mostly in piano quartets and quintets, so the idea of forming a duo was a natural outcome. The subsequent choice of name – Leonore – reflects the duo’s feel for passion in artistic expression, something which Beethoven’s music particularly exemplifies. For Weber and Lundberg, Leonore, heroine of his opera Fidelio, seems the perfect antagonist and example.

That their first CD release together should be the German master’s Five Cello Sonatas comes, therefore, as no surprise in one respect. Equally it's the boldest of choices, considering that there’s more opposition out there already than perhaps for any other mainstream works in the repertoire. Such opposition is arguably from all the greatest exponents of their generation for the last fifty years or more.

Performing the sonatas and especially the early ones on a modern concert-grand piano can additionally throw up all sorts of balance problems that would not have existed in Beethoven’s time. Playing them on a fortepiano can bring the listener much closer to the sound-world the composer knew. Indeed, following the practice of his time, Beethoven actually called his cello-piano duos ‘Sonatas for Piano and Cello’, and not the reverse. Even those pianists who are also soloists in their own right, always seem to show sufficient deference to the cello soloist, regarding the works as sonatas for piano and cello, but on at least an equal footing. This tends, therefore, to negate, somewhat, any advantage or indeed disadvantage of using a fortepiano.

Many CD collections may already include a set of the Cello Sonatas, so the task facing Duo Leonore is either to convince those existing owners perhaps to try another, chronologically-newer examination of the works, or to entice new collectors to choose Duo Leonore’s set over the rest of the opposition – quite a daunting proposition either way.

Returning briefly to the opening paragraph, unlike the symphonies, piano or violin sonatas, there is just no way that all the works in their respective genres could ever be programmed at one single sitting, with just one interval. The Cello Sonatas can be programmed in this way, and there is a real difference in including just one or two in a recital, than all five as a dedicated single-work event. Collectively they represent each of Beethoven’s three major creative periods – in fact rather like a biopic of his life, through his music.

So one key point in appraising any set of all five sonatas is to feel that both players can present each work within its historical context in Beethoven’s creative life, as well as part of an organically-developing process – in a sense rather like tackling Beethoven’s three piano sonatas in his favourite key of C minor (Op. 10 No. 1 – Op. 13 (Pathétique) – Op. 111); yes, the tonality might be the same, but Op. 13 and particularly Op. 111 are light-years apart.

A second and very important point is that the playing from both performers should seek to create that same sense of evolution. It should reflect the stamina needed to play all five works in one programme, even where the recording might be achieved over a number of days – the kind of vital continuity to be expected in any feature film, if credibility is to be maintained.

Finally there must be a real sense of wanting to record all five Sonatas for their intrinsic value and musical integrity, rather than it just being a mountain that any self-respecting climber would feel obliged to have under his belt.

Just put on the start of Sonata No. 1 in F major – a work written at a time when the composer was forging a career for himself as a virtuoso pianist in 1796, when he was just 25 years old, and not yet suffering from the deafness that would later transform his whole existence. There’s not yet a great deal here in this short slow introduction to make you sit back and take notice, but as the ensuing Allegro kicks in, things definitely start to happen from both players. This and the second sonata are real concert-pieces, full of novel instrumental effects for the time and clearly still more orientated towards the piano, which is surely happy to get the lion’s share of the virtuoso action, leaving the cello contented to investigate some high registers at time. Things really take off, though, with the first sonata’s exhilarating Rondo-Finale, and nowhere more so than in its short and rapid conclusion.

Once again Sonata No. 2 in G minor opens with a slow introductory movement, this time far more substantial than its predecessor, but where Weber and Lundberg easily hold the listener’s attention throughout, until the following Allegro starts. Here they wisely conserve their efforts so that, when the closing rondo begins, it by no means appears an anti-climax, despite its simple, yet rustic main theme.

The Sonata No. 3 in A major is a different animal altogether, which Beethoven worked on between 1806 and 1808, by which time his deafness was acute, if not quite complete. In his Heiligenstadt Testament, written in 1802, the composer admitted he had harboured suicidal thoughts, yet this sonata, in common with several other pieces from the same period, seems unnervingly positive in attitude, the work radiating serenity, humour and joy from the very first bar; shades of Schubert come to mind here when in a similar mind-set some few years later. For the first time cello and piano appear on equal terms, and here Beethoven has ensured that each theme fits both instruments like a glove – in fact the emergence of an essentially new genre. That is not to say that virtuosity is never far away. The pair perfectly recreate the gruff humour of the second-movement before giving a quite sublime reading of the short but emotionally-charged Adagio cantabile, arguably one of many little jewels on the CD. This leads seamlessly into the crisply-articulated finale, where bravura moments are finely contrasted with those of gentle repose, before reaching the joyous conclusion.

Beethoven’s ‘late’ period is generally considered to have begun around 1815, meaning that the final two sonatas on the CD – Op. 102 Nos. 1 and 2 – would be among the first pieces in this final group of masterpieces. They are both significantly shorter than their predecessors, since everything is now far more concentrated, and where mere gesture is kept to a bare minimum. Thematically, for example, in the Sonata No. 4 in C major, virtually the whole sonata develops organically from the unpretentious two-bar phrase that opens the work. The key reverts to C major – often considered a ‘basic’ key because of the absence of necessary accidents, but one which sits perfectly with the cello, its two bottom open strings being C and G respectively – the tonic (1st note) and dominant (5th note) of the C major scale. If the challenge of the first two sonatas was virtuosity, the third homogeneity, then perhaps the fourth and fifth would be intellectual approach, and especially so in the respective finales, where counterpoint is much more to the fore, along with some strangely enigmatic moments at times.

In the Sonata No. 5 in D major, Beethoven returns to the earlier three-movement design, and, for the first time, writes a full-length slow movement, and one which must surely rank amongst the best of its kind in the repertoire. Here the players show great spiritual empathy with the music in a truly lovely performance which never once loses momentum, ending quite sublimely, before launching into the fugal finale. Despite the academic nature of the beast, Weber and Lundberg can clearly be heard enjoying every note, while finely pointing and dynamically balancing each fugal entry or reference – great erudition allied with an over-arching sense of performance, all culminating in a taut yet succinctly-argued close.

So does this new release by Duo Leonore actually hit the spot – or each of three spots, to be more precise, mentioned above?

It certainly ticks all the boxes as far as presenting each of the Five Sonatas as part of a developing musical context, rather than as mere separate pieces. The playing and artistic approach audibly reflect the period of the composer’s life when each work first appeared.

Secondly there is a clear sense that even if these five works weren’t recorded in one sitting – effectively there’s over a month’s gap between each three-day recording session – the players have skilfully appeared to ‘age’ each performance to achieve this effect. It should also be noted here that while the superb playing from both performers is virtually faultless throughout, if there is, for example, the very tiniest occasional intonation blemish, this has been left in the performance, but never obtrusive enough to trouble the listener. This helps to create, in effect, all the advantages of a ‘live’ performance, but equally without any of its disadvantages – something which gives a unique cutting-edge to what we hear.

As for the final point, whether it be in the spirited youthfulness of the first two sonatas, the considered maturity of the third work, or the quite individual sound-world and overall conception of the final two sonatas, there can be absolutely no doubt that Weber and Lundberg are simply enjoying every minute of what they’re doing. This is irrespective of the emotional, intellectual or purely physical demands of the music at the time.

We will all have our favourite exponents for each musical genre we listen to and in many cases these will perhaps be artists we have grown up knowing over many years. Consequently if you already have your favourite pairing of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, you may or may not be tempted to add this contemporary new take to your collection. If you’ve yet to commit to a version for yourself, you could certainly do no better than making this version by Duo Leonore your first choice. It may not be quite up there at the very pinnacle – remember, it’s competing with a virtual Who’s Who of Cellists over many years - but equally it can’t be very far from the summit either.

The recording is simply first-rate, with Steinway Grand and Stradivari Cello Bonamy Dobree (1717) captured to absolute perfection right across the full dynamic and pitch range. The extensive booklet is comprehensive, though perhaps more anecdotal and factual than analytical and academic.

In every respect a highly-desirable new look at Beethoven’s definitive works for cello and piano, and something which very definitely whets the appetite for more to come from this highly-accomplished and dynamic duo. It is also available on a double vinyl.

Philip R Buttall
 

 




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