On a freezing Sunday afternoon, a record crowd ventured to Alice Tully Hall to hear the five Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello. Sold out long in advance, the Society sold stage seats, audience surrounding the duo for the two-and-a-half hours the cycle takes. With immense expectation on their shoulders, David and Wu Han sailed through the sonatas, earning a standing ovation and squeezing out a rare rave review from the New York Times.
in David’s words…
Beethoven’s five sonatas for piano and cello comprise the shortest complete cycle of his music, complete in the sense that his three signature stylistic periods are all represented. The early sonatas, composed for his first and only concert tour, are showy, virtuosic works that were clearly intended to impress King Frederick William of Berlin, Beethoven himself at the piano. But interestingly enough, Beethoven’s artistic restlessness led him to compose a very different sonata as the second of the two – in minor key, with a dire, spooky opening and a turbulent first movement. Clearly, Beethoven wanted to push the audience’s appreciation of him as an artist in the second sonata, and this sonata always affects an audience powerfully.
Our crowd at Tully on Sunday could not have been more attentive. I can’t recall a single cough or rustle the entire evening; nothing disturbed our concentration, even with many people sitting practically within arm’s reach.
Wu Han brought her own piano for the concert – the one heard on all the ArtistLed recordings since Russian Classics. For a concert requiring such stamina and pianistic finesse, it was the right decision.
The middle period sonata in A major, Op. 69, was composed during one of Beethoven’s most productive and successful periods. The works of the surrounding opus numbers include the 3rd, 4th and 5th symphonies, the violin concerto, the Triple Concerto, the “Razumovsky” quartets, and the trios Op. 70, among others. The Op. 69 sonata is heroic in every sense, with sweeping melodies shared by the piano and cello. It is one of the greatest works ever composed for cello and piano, and is always a stirring experience to perform.
The two final sonatas, composed in 1815, are really transcendental music. The first, in C major, opens with a heavenly, pure texture that is reminiscent of a baroque trio sonata, all voices equal. The stormy allegro breaks in rudely, and is over almost before you realize it. A written-out improvisation follows, magical and intense, giving one a real sense of what it must have been like to hear Beethoven play extemporaneously. At its most extraordinary moment, the first movement material returns, gilded with gorgeous harmonies, and leading to a rambunctious finale.
The final sonata, in D major, is a true culmination of the cycle. Beethoven composed for this one a full-length slow movement which is like a funeral march, completed with the trodding of feet, heavy and tragic harmonies, and anguished solo lines. In the middle section, the key switches to D major and better times are remembered. But the opening material brings one back to reality, and all hope seems lost by the moment the cello suggests a fugue subject. The piano responds positively, and the cello presents a fugue subject to begin the final movement, a great fugue in the style of his late, great ones in the “Hammerklavier” piano sonata and the Opus 130 string quartet. In this fugue, he achieves the ultimate integration of piano and cello, a fitting conclusion to his exploration of the genre.
After the concert, we greeted a long line of CD buyers, received many warm compliments, and after seeing many friends and colleagues were treated to a sumptuous dinner with CMS donors in the beautiful Hauser Pavilion upstairs in the Tully lobby.
All we can say is: what a thrill to have done this. To our knowledge, it is the first cycle of the sonatas ever performed in Alice Tully Hall – certainly the first in the hall’s new incarnation. The acoustics were perfect, the audience was perfect, and the music itself is all great. We could not have had a better time.
Related link: New York Times review