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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Works for Fortepiano and Violoncello
12 Variations on “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” in G major, WoO 45 (1796) [12:17]
Cello Sonata No.1 in F major, op.5/1 (1796) [23:51]
Cello Sonata No.2 in G minor, op.5/2 (1796) [28:20]
12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” in F major, op.66 (1796) [9:40]
Cello Sonata No.3 in A major, op.69 (1807) [25:53]
7 Variations on “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” in E-flat major, WoO 46 (1801) [9:17]
Cello Sonata No.4 in C major, op.102/1 (1815) [15:15]
Cello Sonata No.5 in D major, op.102/2 (1815) [20:16]
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexander Lonquich (fortepiano)
rec. 2019, Teldex Studio, Berlin
ALPHA 577 [74:03 + 70:58]

While it is quite commonplace now to find recordings of Bach and other Baroque composers that utilize historic instruments, it is less common for Beethoven’s works. Thus it is always a matter of interest when we encounter such a new recording, especially of important chamber works like the compositions for cello and piano.

Nicolas Altstaedt performs on a 1749 cello by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, while Alexander Lonquich accompanies on a Conrad Graf fortepiano that dates from just about the time of Beethoven’s death. Beethoven himself owned a Graf and thought quite highly of it. This particular instrument has a surprisingly modern sound, calling attention to itself as a fortepiano primarily in the upper registers and in its subdued resonance compared to a modern piano.

As has been remarked many times, Beethoven’s cello compositions neatly fall into early, middle and late periods, exemplifying many characteristics of each of those periods. The early works are all connected with a concert tour that Beethoven took in 1796 to Berlin, where he played several times for the King, Frederick Wilhelm II. The king was himself a talented cellist, and Beethoven no doubt sought favor by composing works for the royal instrument (he was very proud of the gold snuffbox filled with gold coins that the king gifted him). At the same time, in the king’s employ was Jean Louis Duport, one of the great cello virtuosi of the period. At the premiere of the first two of cello sonatas, Beethoven accompanied Duport.

The variations on Handel’s “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” from Judas Maccabeus seems to be the earliest of these 1796 compositions, and for the most part is a set of piano variations with a cello overlay that seldom seems even necessary. But the composer’s comfort level in writing for the instrument quickly increases to the point that the opus 5 sonatas are really a teaming of the two instruments. No doubt Beethoven enjoyed the prospect of accompanying a virtuoso like Duport, which is reflected in the far more active content for the cello part in these sonatas.

One constant in this recording that troubles me is that the cello often is buried under the sound of the piano. While that’s not inappropriate in the Judas Maccabeus variations, it’s a bit annoying in the remainder of the set. Alstaedt and Lonquich have played these pieces together in concert numerous times, and their interaction conveys a deep understanding of the music, born out of familiarity with the compositions and each other. That makes these balance issues obnoxious, as I found myself struggling at times to hear the gut strings of the cello.

On the other hand, the dynamic range on the recording is excellent, and there are some sforzandos that come across very well, especially in the second movement of the first sonata. Alstaedt provides a quite straightforward and highly lyrical interpretation of these early sonatas. The second sonata really comes alive; in the Allegro, Alstaedt’s machine-gun quavers/eighth notes feel very modern. In the Rondo, the cello gets some flashy pyrotechnics, which Alstaedt makes the most of.

Representing the middle period, we have a second set of variations on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute: “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” WoO 46, and the third sonata, op.69. The latter is contemporary with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and it demonstrates the same kind of bold fury. The first movement offers some pizzicato moments that are as fearsome as pizzicato can possibly be. The Scherzo is a delightful little offbeat jig, and the participants are fully in line with the sense of fun. The third movement is a raging Allegro vivace, which Alsteadt takes at a wild tempo and makes for a thrilling ride.

The last two sonatas date from the otherwise fallow period of 1815, when Beethoven was distracted by the litigation over the guardianship of his nephew Karl, and completed very few large scale pieces of any kind. I felt that the introductory Andante of the fourth sonata is taken here a bit too slowly, and it starts to lose forward momentum. It’s one of the few weak points of these performances though, and is quickly remedied by a vivid Allegro. There are no such issues with the final movement, which offers a very sensitive Adagio and a playful Andante that makes the most of the numerous false endings Beethoven tosses out.

The performance of the final sonata has a nice bite to the opening Allegro con brio. The closing fugato points to Beethoven’s fascination with the fugue form in the last decade of his life, and we see clear glimpses of the Grosse Fuge, op.133 in its elaborate machinery. Here the knowledge that the performers have of each other is at its highest usefulness, since any false step would destroy the precision of the piece. It’s quite delightful, at once looking backwards and forwards.

As is typical for sets of Beethoven’s complete cello works, the dubious sonata op.64 (an arrangement of the String Trio op.3) is excluded in order to keep the set within two CDs. Alstaedt and Lonquich take most but not all of Beethoven’s indicated repeats.

The tracking of the sets of variations assigns only a single track to the entire composition, rather than giving each variation its own track. As a result, anyone wanting to find a particular variation must hunt for it, which is a shame since the thorough and thoughtful program notes by Eberhard Feltz make reference to a number of individual variations.

Although there is much to enjoy here in terms of performance, the imbalance between the keyboard and the cello makes that prospect more difficult than it should be.

Mark S. Zimmer

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