Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Complete Music for Cello and Piano
12 Variations on a theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, WoO 45 (1796) [10:33]
7 Variations on ‘Bei Männern’, from Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’, WoO 46 (1801) [8:37]
12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’, from Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’, Op.66 [8:44]
Cello Sonata in F major, Op.5 No.1 [21:52]
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op.5 No.2 [25:25]
Cello Sonata in A major, Op.69 (1707-08) [24:10]
Cello Sonata in C major, Op.102 No.1 (1815) [13:14]
Cello Sonata in D major, Op.102 No.2 (1815) [19:12]
Xavier Phillips (cello)
François-Frédéric Guy (piano)
rec. January 2015, l’Arsenal, Metz
EVIDENCE CLASSICS EVCD015 [73:38 + 55:18]

This release comes with a ‘statement of intent’ from pianist François-Frédéric Guy. His Beethoven Project has already seen recordings of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and concertos, so this is the opening to “the third act, devoted to the chamber music.”

This is a very fine set of performances. I don’t remember hearing any of these variations played with quite this sense of fun, and the glowing contrasts between the expressively sublime and the frenetically dramatic make this set a joy to hear. I make this point knowing there’s usually an air of dutiful trepidation when it comes to approaching great swathes of variations. Beethoven is Beethoven of course and you wouldn’t expect these to be dull, but quite often these sorts of pieces are designed to be nice to play as much as they are to make an impression on the concert stage. If this were a concert I certainly wouldn’t be complaining about the ticket price, and would probably leave a tip.

The sonatas are of course the real meat, and this chronological presentation is helpful in tracing Beethoven’s ‘emancipation of the cello’. The two Opus 5 sonatas are both transparently classical in concept as well as having their moments of compositional exploration. This duo has plenty of style and élan, effortlessly exchanging leading lines and attacking Beethoven’s sharp cornering with focused accuracy and an inexorable sense of flow.

Greater musical depths are plumbed on CD 2, with the mature Sonata Op. 69 written in the same period as the Op. 70 Piano Trios and not long after the Fourth Symphony. Taking on the significance of this music, cellist Xavier Phillips digs deep into his strings, emphasising the darker dramas while heightening lyrical contrasts in the Allegro non tanto first movement. Rhetorical gestures make a telling impact without overly disturbing the onward drive of the music, though the changes in character between registers and material make this into something more operatic, and certainly in the nature of something that transcends expectations from this instrumentation. One can’t help feeling Schubert must have known this piece well, and drew a great deal of inspiration from its colours and dramatic content. The sparky Scherzo with its off-beat rhythms is by no means a light intermezzo in this performance; the beautiful Adagio cantabile first section of the last movement is luminous, and the final Allegro vivace is perfectly paced for both excitement and an appreciation of brilliance from both composer and performers. This is the kind of recording that makes you wish the piece was even longer.

Extensive duration isn’t such a feature of the final two Sonatas Op.102, but as products of Beethoven’s late period these works push the genre further than before, blending poetic power with impulsive sounding impact and a similar kind of uncompromising quirkiness to the sort that makes works such as the Ninth Symphony so enduringly fascinating. 1815 predates Beethoven’s troubles with his “inflammatory fever” but not quite the death of his brother Carl and its attendant troubles for the composer. To me his involvement at the time with vocal music and programmatic works resonate through these sonatas, and with Phillips’ quiet subtlety of expression it is easy to hear the operatic elements in Op. 102 No. 1 and the declamatory ‘concerto’ character and troubled eloquence of Op. 102 No. 2.

There are quite a few more or less complete recordings of Beethoven’s output for cello and piano. Miklós Perényi and András Schiff are recommendable on ECM, as are Brendel & Son on Philips and Lawrence Lesser and HaeSun Paik on Bridge. Alfred Brendel’s lyrical touch at the piano is a particular joy in his Decca recording, though I find Xavier Phillips more characterful in his cello than Adrian Brendel. Lawrence Lesser is darkly soulful – expressive and dramatic but always sensitive to light and shade, and a tad stronger than pianist HaeSun Paik, though this might have something to do with the slightly more diffuse piano sound. In any case, this recording from Xavier Phillips and François-Frédéric Guy is one of the most admirable I know in this repertoire. The sound is nicely transparent and full of colour, especially in the detail of the marginally more forward cello sound.

Dominy Clements
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