Beethoven: Complete Music for Piano and Violoncello (ECM New Series 1819/20)

Beethoven Complete Music for Piano and Violoncello

Ludwig van Beethoven
Complete Music for Piano and Violoncello

András Schiff piano
Miklós Perényi violoncello
Recorded December 2001 and August 2002 at Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher

Before leaving his indelible mark on the interpretive history of Beethoven through his account of the 32 sonatas for ECM, András Schiff posited an evolutionary affinity between that pantheon of piano literature and the sonatas for piano and cello. Smaller in scope yet bursting with ideas, these pieces pose just as many challenges to any who dare swim in their waters. As an artist of such high yet sensitive caliber, Schiff needed a most able ally with whom to run the gamut of this treasure store. There could be only one answer to that call: cellist (and fellow Budapestian) Miklós Perényi, who brightens the torch of his prodigy via these chamber masterworks with panache and smooth execution.

The program moves in generally chronological order, beginning with the Sonata No. 1, Beethoven’s Opus 5. The two Opus 5 sonatas were written in Berlin in 1796, the result of an association with Friedrich Wilhelm II, a fine cellist in his own right. Both sonatas mark a genetic shift not only in Beethoven’s evolution as a composer, but also in that of the chamber sonata, which in the past treated the featured instrument as a satellite. And yet, while Schiff concedes that the Opus 5 sonatas do indeed weigh in the piano’s favor, he and Perényi play with such balance—the cellist lending especial robustness to the supporting chords—that one would hardly know this without a score at hand.

The complaisant key of F Major imbues the opening measures with sanctity, opening the floor for a harmonious conversation. The foreshadowing is palpable: something is going to give. The pianism realizes these tensions in cascading arpeggios, each the garment of something restless, pure. The seamlessness is such that we needn’t even know the names of these musicians. They become something else entirely: not one with the music but musically one. Take, for instance, the central Allegro, which tents the sonata with effervescent keyboarding and hands the cellist a heavy shovel with which to dig. That an instrument of four strings can hold its own alongside one with 230 is a feat in and of itself. The pianism is exquisite here and indicates a playfulness in the early Beethoven that would translate into the cantilevering architecture of the later works. The concluding Rondo fully realizes the restlessness implied in the opening movement, weighing rocks against piles of feathers. Beethoven’s brilliance, even at this stage, is that he doesn’t give in to the temptation of treating the final movement as an endpoint or culmination of all that came before. It is, rather, its own entity with idiosyncratic hopes and dreams. These and more are borne out in the denouement, which shuffles Apollonian and Dionysian motives in a series of what in his liner notes Martin Meyer calls “surprising displacements of the entries.” These render the anticipatory nature of the sonata as something far beyond the purview of catch and release.

The inaugural Adagio of the Sonata No. 2 in G minor leaves greater room for interpretation than its counterpart in the No. 1. More floral than faunal, it nevertheless bounces its way through another gargantuan middle passage before emerging onto a Rondo of filigreed delight.

Also composed in 1796 are the Variations in G Major on “See the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Beethoven would not have had chance to hear the oratorio live at the time, and so engaged with this theme by proxy of suggestion. The music is buoyant, typically classical in style yet also speckled with shadows by way of its intakes, leaving one scrambling to indulge in the decorative. As Meyer so eloquently puts it, “The constructive impetuosity minimizes any lingering over ‘beautiful’ passages or ideas; the virtuosic beginnings become displaced at the end by an unprecedentedly compact presentness, with the prospect of an uncertain art of the future.”

The Opus 17 “Horn Sonata” (1800) takes on a distinct arc of its own. That this sonata was originally composed for piano and Waldhorn (hunting horn) and later revised for the combination presented here is perhaps obvious only in the opening Allegro, the impulses of which function as building blocks for all that follows. Its themes burrow underground in a brief Adagio toward the fullness of the conclusion, which leaves us with a structure of integrity and, in its own way, poise.

From clarion to clean, we are treated to two further sets of variations—the 12 variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” in F Major, op. 66 and the seven on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” in E-flat Major, WoO 46—drawn from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The former’s polite dance steps contrast artfully with the latter’s sluggish beginnings and sweeping uptake.

Although the Sonata in A Major, op. 69 selectively draws from its predecessors, the thinking put forth by its introduction is progressive and elicits the deepest anticipations in the program thus far. It is, in effect, a sonata unto itself. This is followed by the only Scherzo in the collection, a wonderful hiccup that stretches the sonata to four distinct sections. The golden Adagio is as pious as it is brief, while the final Allegro—tentatively and first but then with resplendence—runs in joyful, secular circles. This sonata is a highlight of the record: for its compression, for its focus, for its spirit.

The two Opus 102 sonatas date to 1815. The first, in C Major, is another compact affair. Not only is it the shortest (its total running time falls just shy of the Adagio of the Sonata No. 1), but it is also the most varied. A tender back and forth builds a core of mutual dependence. The second, in D Major, also crosses tightly engineered bridges. The jaggedness of the outer movements cradles, unscathed, a robust Adagio that practically cries for the gentle fugue that photosynthesizes into the final Allegro.

Although sure to become a benchmark, these renditions may not necessarily replace those of Richter and Rostropovich, but they do make suitable companions. Their forward motion is intriguing: there is little breathing room. In Beethoven’s hands the piano-cello combination slips into a “Zen” sort of oneness between medium and message. That the listener can feel that unity so nakedly is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this album. Accordingly, it begs deep, undistracted listening.

In his own liner notes, Schiff admits that playing these works in sequence is like surveying Beethoven’s entire biography. Elsewhere, cellist Steven Isserlis has expressed similar feelings toward the cycle, saying, “[I]t is a journey through a life.” To this narrative Schiff and Perényi add a salient point: not only did Beethoven have an extraordinary life, but so too did his music, and forever will so long as ardent interpreters like these walk the earth in his shadow.

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