Beethoven's five sonatas for piano and cello show in a nutshell the same evolution that the 32 piano sonatas show," said Andras Schiff recently, in an American radio interview. "You have this wonderful young lion Beethoven in the opus 5 sonatas, you have the opus 69, the A major, which stands in the middle of his life, and then you have these wonderful two works, opus 102, which are at the gates of the late style, the last phase. And these are in a way experimental works, but fully crystallized."
Andras Schiff's decision to record Beethoven's complete works for piano and cello is characteristic for a musician who has set himself the challenge of undertaking many complete cycles of works in his concert life. Recitals and special cycles including the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Bartok have long been an important part of his activities. A special focus in 2004, for instance, has been performance of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas in chronological order. For Schiff, this is a matter of "curiosity, and trying to see connections, to see the development and evolution of a composer in a certain genre. It's a learning process I would like to share with my listeners."
The works for piano and cello are realized here with Miklos Perenyi. "There is a great affinity between us, coming from the same country and the same city, Budapest." Five years his senior, Perenyi's status as "a wunderkind, a child prodigy" was a local legend when Schiff was growing up. Subsequently, Perenyi was to become the favourite pupil of Pablo Casals; for Andras Schiff, his countryman is "the greatest cellist alive today". Pianist and cellist have been chamber music partners for a long time now, intensifying their musical relationship during Schiff's decade-long directorship of the Musiktage Mondsee and playing concerts together around the world.
There is no shortage of repertoire for cello and piano today, but when Beethoven wrote his opus 5 sonatas in 1796, at the age of 25, the instrumentation was still considered novel. Schiff feels that these are Beethoven's "first very brilliant compositions". In the opus 5 works, however, the cello and piano are not yet equal partners: "With all respect to the cello, these are very virtuoso piano parts that Beethoven played, these were really show pieces for himself. And the cello part is of course very demanding and very important but the piano carries the weight of the drama." This puts a responsibility on a pianist: "You have to be not overpowering while still keeping the force and the weight." The opus 5 pieces are distinct in character. Opus 5/1 sets out "to entertain in a very noble way. It's youthful, this is a young Beethoven, and it's full of life and also full of humour;" Opus 5/2 is "very dramatic and very dark in colour", at least until its concluding rondo where the sun breaks through the clouds.
By the time Beethoven wrote the A major Sonata op. 69, in the winter of 1807/8, he was already on the other side of his so-called "middle period", and in between the composing of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. His writing for the combination of cello and piano "had also evolved radically," as Martin Meyer writes in the liner notes for this collection. Opus 69 proceeds dialectically; it is created out of contrasts that seem finally obliterated by the motoric energy of the concluding Allegro vivace. Meyer: "From the composer's own declarations one could aptly cite here his expressed desire that his work be marked solely by a constant advance toward something new and different."
In 1815 Beethoven composed the Sonatas Op. 102, the first of which he described as a "free Sonata", meaning "that one should no longer try to rationalize the logic of its unconventional structure" (Meyer). Schiff describes the fugue in the final movement of Op. 102/2, as "still a puzzle after almost 200 years". Its 'modernity' is extraordinary: "It's still giving a hard time to listeners and performers because it makes no compromises. It's very tough, yet it is beautifully conceived, it's perfectly written. When we started this with Miklos Perenyi, we really analyzed it, and sometimes just played it really slowly, just enjoying every moment and every little corner of it."
Completing the double-CD programme are four works played less often: three sets of "Variations" for cello and piano from the "early" period, based respectively on themes from Mozart's Magic Flute and Handel's Judas Maccabeaus, and the "Horn Sonata" Op. 17, which was written originally for Bohemian waldhorn virtuoso Giovani Punto, who premiered the work together with Beethoven in 1800. The composer later revised the horn part for cello.
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A Dialogue through all the Tones. Beethoven as Chamber Musician
The later 19th century discerned and admired monumental greatness in the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, but also recognized this in the person of the mighty individualist, whom they perceived as a struggling and suffering "Faustian" genius. The Beethoven cult which reached its zenith in the visual arts at the turn of the century - as typified by Gustav Klimt's 1902 Beethoven frieze for the Secession in Vienna - mainly celebrated the artist as a dramatist. That is how Bourdelle presented him to the world in his dark, craggy sculptures: as a man on an uncompromising quest for the true and the good, whose energies had stripped away all biographical externals and channelled them into service of the work and its constant grip on listeners. What was being revealed here was human pathos, the spirit of an embracing love for a race in need of redemption. No wonder that Richard Wagner played a decisive part in moulding this image; he had something similar in mind himself when he criticized the shallow materialism of his age and - no doubt with the intent of a "regeneration" - went off in pursuit of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork. Hardly less moved by the philosophically grounded music of an unreachable predecessor was the conflictridden Gustav Mahler, seeing himself in the role of an architect whose gigantic structures arose, practically bar by bar and contrary to every rule of conventional formal language, from the innermost avowal of the creative impulse.
Such readings are not simply to be dismissed. Every period has its own approaches and connections to the masters - art is not a static representation: on the contrary, it lives from history for further history. Beethoven himself surely aided and abetted his own elevation to heroic status: not least, of course, with the portions of his output whose speculative impetus was immediately accessible to all - the Eroica, the Fifth Symphony and, especially, the Ninth offered themes of fate in unsurpassably pithy forms, dramatized with truly marvellous economy, while Fidelio countered the ludicrous psychology of the Rococo with a tale of tyrannical power, ultimate fidelity and unswerving devotion. But the composer also distinguished himself as a literary confessor. The letters, writings of a testamentary nature, notes and finally countless remarks made to friends, pupils and patrons all disclose a character that seemed completely consistent with his moral standards as well as his political and social comments. Goethe, who admired Beethoven and had expected to collaborate with him, although he was unable to fathom the depth of his musical soul, exhibited the deference of an upstart court artist and functionary in the presence of such unruly autonomy.
Beethoven's humour was another matter. It is already apparent in his earliest compositions for solo piano, piano trio and the first two cello sonatas - his Opp. 1-5. But it carries on even in the phases of the "heroic" style-listen,for example, to the piano sonata Op. 31 No. 3 - and manifests itself again in the late works with new vigour and by means of the greatest economy. Beethoven's farewell to the piano is not the sonata Op.111, which rises from the moving depths of searching and probing to the "Arietta's" cosmic heights. The variations on a waltz by Diabelli he wrote a year later are the real crown of his contribution to this instrument: a compendium of interwoven and juxtaposed voices, registers and rhythms, studded with humourand wit, but also - who would have expected anything else? - conjuring up the tenderness of melancholy and the rancour of loneliness. Thus humour - as an element of protest against lyrical or elegiac inwardness-would also have to subvert the portrait of the titan rising above the dark side of daily human existence. A further aspect of the musical content, with regard to both idea and practice, was virtuosity. As a brilliant piano virtuoso, particularly in improvisation, the young Beethoven became the talk of Bonn and, from 1792, Vienna. Here was a soloist whose technical proficiency needed to fear no competition; yet what he performed was more, and more substantial, than Clementi and Hummel had ever been capable of playing. Bach was probably the first great master who succeeded in blending the bravura of the performing musician's craft with the intellectual and emotional exigencies of his compositions. Hans von Bulow's remark that the 48 Preludes and Fugues of the Well-tempered Clavier represented the "Old Testament" of musical literature also took into account this extraordinary cycle's two main aspects - brilliant keyboard writing and spiritual expressive power. Beethoven went a step farther with his 32 piano sonatas-the"New Testament"- by formulating new difficulties, and figures for the virtuoso to master, yet, once again, strictly and deliberately according to the musical intent.
All the early works readily demonstrate this consonance of virtuosity and thematic concentration. The first three piano trios already are conceived with "obbligato" parts from top to bottom:the piano, violin and cello are treated as equals and produce a kind of writing that can loosely be referred to as polyphonic. Beethoven admitted without hesitation that he"came into the world with an obbligato accompaniment". By that he meant something more than just the structural relations between the parts: he was referring to their manner of "speaking", something already realized in the earliest piano sonatas and in the first two cello sonatas as well. In all these works the principal and subsidiary parts are set in an atmosphere encouraging conversation, regardless of whether the particular expressive tone is dramatic, lyrical or brilliantly capricious. Haydn and Mozart had also discovered parlando in polyphony, the former, for example, in his more adventurous piano sonatas, the latter in the late string quartets. Beethoven knew and prized the models that these works represented, but in the end they served him only as points of departure for a markedly more acute approach to the matter of "literary" rhetoric.
Haydn, the dedicatee of the three piano sonatas Op. 2, was pleased with the independent competence of the young man he had taught in Vienna from the beginning of 1793 to the beginning of 1794. The pupil had a somewhat more critical view of his mentor's role, especially after Haydn failed to display the expected degree of enthusiasm for the C minor Piano Trio. When Beethoven in February 1796 travelled via Prague to Berlin, where he composed the two Op. 5 cello sonatas at the court of Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm II, his term of apprenticeship was definitively behind him. One could cite at length the circumstances that contributed to the cello's literature now acquiring, for the first time, an unprecedented degree of compositional and expressive concentration. But the fact is that art cannot be explained, even marginally, in the ambience of the occasion: although Beethoven may briefly have played the role of court musician, his sights were already trained on something far beyond it. Not only was Friedrich Wilhelm II a gifted cellist, who supported music-making at court with unflagging enthusiasm;he also engaged a series of superb musicians: besides Boccherini, in particular the cellist-composers Jean-Pierre Duport and his brother Jean-Louis Duport, in particular, the first as supervisor of court chamber music, the second as the opera orchestra's principal cellist. It was in this fertile soil that Beethoven's two sonatas blossomed;their composer and Jean-Louis Duport probably performed for them for the king, their dedicatee. But what were the novelties that Beethoven undertook in these works? Unlike the Op. 2 piano sonatas, both the F major and G minor cello sonatas have only two movements - allegro and rondo - a compression of classical sonata structure. This alone - cutting back the musical statement to an event of virtuosic, dynamic urgency - would have sufficed to confirm brilliantly the fame of this original and unconventional mind. But Beethoven found the weight of the two pieces still not adequately balanced, and so he provided each with the dramatic device of a tension-laden introduction: "Adagio sostenuto"for the F major Sonata,"Adagio sostenuto e espressivo"for its sister work in G minor.
The first sonata commences with an unison. During the first five bars of the rising opening motif,the two parts run in parallel. Only then does the cello's cantilena assert itself, whereupon it is taken up by the piano and broadened into chords. That this Adagio, at first tentative, improvisatory and with numerous sforzati as its only sign of increasing restlessness, is headed towards release in a piano cadenza that breaks stormily out of the discant is something that marks its composer as a master of anticipation. The Allegro and its pulsating quavers (eighth notes) may - still - be calling for a tempering of energies with the indication of "dolce", and the second subject initially intoned by the cello again presents itself with the mollifying marking of "piano", but by the development section, at the latest - where the movement decisively and with passionate pleading turns to the minor - the climate has become one of systematic attack, which now causes the idyll of the peaceful beginning to appear in an altogether different light. The interpolations at the end of the recapitulation also make an unfamiliar sound:four bars of "Adagio", then a "Presto" ellipsis, before the principal theme brings the movement to a close. The rondo with its furioso contrasting sections is dramatized by virtuosity on a grand scale but, once again, played out in opposition to the linearity of a predictable mood: just before the end there is a momentary reminiscence of the halting slow introduction.
To put it in context, this is what the young Beethoven had already completely mastered. The work's character - its inner disposition, so to speak - does not primarily determine, however,the principles of its structure:their validity is independent of it. Thus the companion work of Op. 5, in G minor, evokes an entirely different world: melancholic lament in the"Adagio sostenuto e espressivo", fate-powered drive in the following "Allegro molto piu tosto presto". And yet the contrary direction of line notated in the two introductory movements - in the F major Sonata, cautiously ascending; in the G minor,drawn downward by the long-breathed piano part and only slightly upward again with a brief semiquaver (16th-note) phrase on the cello - would be enough to demonstrate how much connecting logic is at work in each piece, even in the details of its workmanship. And as though the rushing fury of the G minor - Sonata's "Allegro", with its keyboard-spanning, racing triplets, were incapable of stopping, not only the exposition but the development as well are to be repeated here.
The rondo, on the other hand, has powerfully shifted the temperature: to the pleasant warmth of a sun-drenched present, whose flow is really contested in the course of twelve bars only by the piano. Moreover, it is also the pianist who presents the first subsidiary theme, to which the cellist immediately replies with the second subsidiary theme in minor - and only then gets to play the main theme. That might have further fuelled - not to Beethoven's disadvantage - the Berlin musical scene's sense of anticipation, which was chiefly focussed on his unprecedented keyboard virtuosity. As things transpired, the king rewarded the composer with a gold snuffbox filled with louis d'or. In the piece itself the keyboard instrument's dominance is explained without any hint of patronizing the cello.The freer part-writing coupled with events of undiminished harmonic richness is manifested here not so much in symmetries as in surprising displacements of the entries.
More than ten years separate the next sonata for this instrumental combination from the early display of genius in Op. 5. When Beethoven composed the A major Sonata Op. 69 during the winter of 1807-08,he had long since entered his so-called middle period, indeed had already left it behind on his way towards the late works. The Fifth Symphony was completed, the Sixth and the two piano trios Op. 70 would follow later in 1808, and the next year would see the composition of the Emperor Concerto Op.73, the last manifestation of his"heroic"style - though his former admiration for Napoleon had now receded a critical distance into the past so that, despite all the elements of pomp and pathos assembled in that famously successful work, it was no longer possible to speak of a personal homage. An astonishing aspect of the compositions of this period is their diversity of character. If the Fifth Symphony had indeed thrust its hand into the jaws of fate, the Pastoral, like an exact counterpoise, dispenses the appeasement of a nature mysticism unfolding in the observer's immediate proximity,and the so-called Ghost Trio Op. 70 No. 1, with the vasf "Largo assai's"uncanny,then highly unusual tremolos, presents itself quite differently again: mysteriously placed in the openness of the material. The Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 69 lends itself less easily to such pigeonholing. For the first time in a piece for these forces, it is the string instrument that leads off - with a perfectly gentle melody that grows from minims (half notes) into crotchets (quarter notes).
But appearances can be deceiving. Although the piano continues with the sweeping main theme, the two high trills already raise a question, and the cadenza following the first fermata, dropping from the third trill right down to the bass, changes the tone of the opening: something salubrious comes into play with the repeat of the theme in double octaves, and soon after that the melody turns resolutely to the parallel key, A minor. And as if that weren't enough: the development section strikes up yet another new tone when an extended motif of lamentation is laid bare, one whose similarity with the Adagio "Es ist vollbracht" from Bach's St. John Passion has frequently been noted. Thus while the successive individual ideas appear to be solid, the opening movement as a whole insistently unfolds according to a process that is "dialectical" and created out of contrasts. Coming after phenomena of such richness would pose a difficult challenge to any scherzo, as Beethoven knew full well when - in tried and true fashion, but with an extra ration of humour this time - he added the "Allegro molto", whose five-part structure, replete with a repetition of the Trio, seems about to burst open the genre's very conception. The syncopated theme in A minor bores its way into the texture and the ear with such half-irritable, half-humorous insistence that one begins to wonder if the repeated joke, varied only in dynamics, will ever end.
The "Adagio cantabile" stirs up recollections of the early works of Op. 5: such a lyrically melodious opening could also have come from the slow movement of a piano trio or string quartet. After 18 bars of the most intimate dialogue, however, it is already over. Was this after all no more than a very delicate introduction to the"Allegro vivace" of the finale? Its motoric energy certainly causes everything preceding it to seem to disappear into a deliberately staged oblivion. From the composer's own declarations one could aptly here cite his expressed desire that his work be marked solely by a constant advance towards something new and different.
And so it is, finally, in the two last works for piano and cello. Another seven years later, in 1815, Beethoven composed the Sonatas Op. 102, the first of which he described in writing as a "free sonata", meaning that one should no longer try to rationalize the logic of its quite unconventional structure. Certain elements in the sphere of formal and thematic innovations could be read like a palimpsest for the Piano Sonata Op. 101. There Beethoven had combined ethereal lyrical passages with an uncommonly urgent march rhythm, combined the"Adagio, ma non troppo, con affetto" - which runs into unfathomable depths of melancholy - with the fugal finale, by way of the briefest possible reprise of the opening. The Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 102 No. 2 concludes with an"Allegro fugato"; and in the Sonata Op. 102 No. 1 the slow movement - as in Op.101 - leads, after a brief quotation from the opening Andante, into the final "Allegro vivace". Late style: no longer can the composer be tempted by self-contained, impregnable movement shapes. On the contrary it becomes evident - and this probably also paraphrases the life situation of the deaf, isolated man, unremittingly assailed by family troubles - how moods, emotions, even ideas and basic conceptions from the musical material are subjected to a metamorphosis at once powerful and reflective.
The Adagio comes in the middle of the C major Sonata of Op. 102. After just a single crotchet beat the theme branches off into improvisationally distributed garlands in the two instruments, and before it is allowed to unfold any further it is confronted with a reminiscence of the beginning of the "Andante". This, a kind of "replica", undermines any sense of stability until the closing movement as three-part finale rebinds the energies. The D major Sonata is permitted to show off its"Adagio con molto sentimento d'affet - to "more candidly - for the first and only time in the cello sonatas, space is found for a full-length slow movement. But even here, after the fermata on the final chord, the fugue follows without a break. And unlike the fugue in the Piano Sonata Op. 110, this is not a melodically conciliatory continuation arriving at an apotheosis of euphony, but, as in the Hammerklavier Sonata Op. 106, a knotty, defiant construction of sforzati and sharp dissonances.
No wonder the reviewer in Leipzig's "Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung" was somewhat disconcerted, numbering the two sonatas"among the most unusual and peculiar", with everything here quite different from what one is otherwise used to getting - "even from this master". The critic recognized, of course, how Beethoven rejected "everything merely alluring, sonorous and ear-pleasing", instead making the melodies"not infrequently rough, the harmony now and again hard". But he did have his problems coming to terms with the very high and very low registers in the piano writing, and on humanitarian grounds he regretted the task of the cellist, who had to be "quite secure in his intonation, rhythm etc."and"moreover a very good singer on his instrument" if his performance was really to succeed.
Within a span of twenty years Beethoven's writing for the combination of cello and piano had evolved radically, in a way comparable to his works for solo piano or for string quartet, but far outstripping his development of either the violin sonata or the piano trio. Whereas the variation sets written in his"early" period (1796-1801) - on"Ein Madchen oderWeibchen"and"Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fuhlen", both from Mozart's Magic Flute, and on a theme from Handel's Judas Maccabaeus - still belong to the category of domestic music-making and are innocent of intellectual ambitions, the sonatas for piano and cello were formulated from the start, and thereafter without exception, in an atmosphere of experimentation and complex references. This also applies, with reservations, to the little-known Sonata in F major. Op. 17, which Beethoven composed in 1800. The first version, however, was conceived not for piano and cello but for the Waldhorn (hunting horn) of the renowned Bohemian virtuoso Giovanni Punto, who gave the work its first performance together with Beethoven on 18 April 1800 in Vienna's Burgtheater. Soon after, the composer himself transcribed the horn part for cello, in the process lending additional energy to the brilliance of articulation. Some of the piano part suggests the reduction of an orchestral score, and the thematic invention does not stray beyond solid convention. Only the varied minor sections in the finale anticipate a similar procedure in the slightly later Spring Sonata for piano and violin, but there its appearance is given significantly more "colour".
To summarize: Perhaps it was the cello's natural eloquence that particularly stimulated him Beethoven to cultivate the principles of musical dialogue - ultimately, it must be added, within an increasing desensualization of the material. The constructive impetuosity minimizes any lingering over "beautiful" passages or ideas; the virtuosic beginnings become displaced at the end by an un-precedentedly compact presentness, with the prospect of an uncertain art of the future.
- Martin Meyer