On a hot Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville’s elegant Cummer Museum, David and Wu Han performed their first of several cycles this season of the complete sonatas for piano and cello by Beethoven. Having presented this program numerous times in recent years – twice at the Aspen Music Festival, in Tokyo, and at Town Hall’s Free for All series – the duo will conclude its performances of the cycle this season with a marathon concert at the new Alice Tully Hall in the spring.
in David’s words…
Cellists, every day, should give thanks to Beethoven for creating his five sonatas, not to mention the three sets of variations, for piano and cello. Would that Mozart, or Haydn, have found similar inspiration to create duos for our two instruments! Wu Han and I have performed the Beethoven cycle ever since we began our duo partnership, and our recording of Beethoven’s complete works for piano and cello was one of the highest priorities for our company, ArtistLed, shortly after its inception.
The scope of this remarkable cycle of works is always fun to talk about, and for those interested in gaining perspective on the project, I invite you to read on.
Beethoven was motivated to compose his sonatas by various personal and commercial interests. The two Op. 5 sonatas, composed in 1796 at the height of his early period, are the first real duos for cello and piano. Previously, composers had written music for solo cello with simple accompaniment, or, in the case of Bach, in the form of a trio sonata, for two voices on the keyboard and one for the cello. But no one had yet treated the combination of cello and piano as a serious opportunity for dialogue, an exchange of musical thoughts, or as a team for which to build engaging, full-form classical works. Beethoven composed these two sonatas for his first (and only) extended concert tour to Berlin, where they were performed in a single evening for king Frederick William, himself an amateur cellist, by Beethoven himself and court cellist Jean-Louis Duport. The first sonata is an openly happy affair, with a dramatic introduction followed by a lively allegro, and then by an even more lively allegro, both instruments pursuing virtuosic heights in a completely equal dialogue.
By the time Beethoven composed his third sonata the year was 1808, and the composer, now having become resigned to his inevitable loss of hearing, had made the transition from from defeated, depressed musician to artistic titan, a force of nature, pouring out one masterpiece after another in this incredible “middle” period of his creative life. Surrounding this heroic sonata are the most popular of Beethoven’s works: the Fifth Symphony, the violin concerto, the Triple Concerto, the “Appassionata”sonata, and the like. The sonata in A major, Op. 69, has long been the standout of the cycle for its immediate accessibility, soaring lines, and heartfelt musical qualities.
Beethoven’s compositional output fell off during the decade of roughly 1810 to 1820. Distracted by the legal battle over his nephew Karl, beset by total deafness and unable to play the piano in public, he also grappled with the search for a new style which, against all odds, could convincingly succeed that of his phenomenally popular middle period. One of the first inklings we have of the transcendental music to come from Beethoven’s late period are the two sonatas of Op. 102 from 1815. Composed as a birthday present for his patron, the piano-playing Countess Erdödy, they were premiered by her, and Razumovsky Quartet cellist Josef Linke, at her summer home.
The first of the two, in C major, is a unique creation. The shortest of all five sonatas, it nonetheless has four movements, each of them an amazing creation. The first is composed like a trio sonata, the left and right hands of the piano and the cello trading single lines in a heavenly, blissful and transparent conversation. The mood is rudely interrupted by the appearance of a ferocious allegro, a full sonata-form movement compressed into only a few minutes, in the style of the first movement of the string quartet op. 95. Thereafter follows a written-out improvisation which justifies the numerous reports of Beethoven’s magical extemporaneous playing. A surprise return of the opening movement leads to the joyful finale, a brilliant romp from start to finish.
The second sonata of the set, and the final piano-cello work from Beethoven’s hand, provides the ultimate integration of the two instruments in the culminating fugue, a stupendous piece of work that is a true forerunner to the composer’s great fugues to appear in the “Hammerklavier” piano sonata and the op. 130 string quartet. After a formal but quirky opening allegro, the cycle’s only true slow movement appears, a haunting funeral march, complete with a middle “consolation” section where better times are tenderly recalled. A truly mesmerizing, frighteningly dark return of the first section leads to the daunting fugue, which at times is so dissonant that it sounds like music from the twentieth century. It is a fitting way to close this great cycle, the shortest complete cycle of Beethoven works that exists. One can perform music from Beethoven’s three major styles of composition in a mere two and half hours: a real treat for us, and an incomparable opportunity for listeners as well.