One does not often have the opportunity to hear all of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and ‘cello (nor indeed the 9 duo sonatas for piano and violin) at one sitting in a single concert. It’s something of a musical marathon, for performers and audience alike, yet it’s a fascinating and absorbing experience because to hear the sonatas played in chronological sequence, one is offered a unique window onto Beethoven’s creative and compositional development: it is a journey through Beethoven’s life.
The Opus 5’s are a young man’s works: fresh, vibrant, colourful, energetic, humorous. They are clever and witty – take the false cadences in fast movement of the G minor sonata – but nor do they lack depth, or emotion. They also remind us that Beethoven was a fine pianist, and the Opus 5 sonatas were composed at a time when Beethoven was carving a career for himself as a virtuoso. The F Major and G Minor sonatas are works for piano with ‘cello, not the other way around, and the piano definitely gets the greater share of the virtuosity: Beethoven was clearly not going to allow himself to be overshadowed by some ‘cellist! Over and over again in these sonatas, the piano seems to lead, and the ‘cello replies.
The A major sonata, the Opus 69, is from the middle, most productive, period of Beethoven’s life; yet, it was at this time that the composer wrote his moving Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he contemplated suicide. His deafness was now acute, if not quite total. The Opus 69 marks a turning point, particularly in the variety and organisation of its thematic material, and its improvisatory nature. It was composed during the same year as the Violin Concerto and the Opus 70 piano trios, and the completion and publication of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. It is an entirely classical sonata in its measured, well-proportioned construction, and, in contrast to the earlier sonatas, where the piano and ‘cello are, more often than not, engaged in witty musical repartee, the first movement of the Opus 69 opens with the ‘cello alone; variations of its expansive main theme and a pair of contrasting secondary motifs allow much contrapuntal and melodic interplay between the two players. This an equal sonata for cello and piano, and the material is distributed between the two instruments with perfect symmetry. And at this point, Beethoven had invented a new genre not seen again until Brahms. (Previous ‘cello sonatas were either ‘cello solos with continuo, or like the Opus 5 sonatas: piano sonatas with ‘cello obbligato.)
The final pair of sonatas, the Opus 102, dating from the beginning of the “late” period of Beethoven’s life, sit alongside the beautiful, pastoral Opus 96 violin sonata, and the last three piano sonatas – all truly miraculous works. Like the sublime Opus 110 piano sonata, these sonatas seem to inhabit another world entirely, and exude an almost transcendental spirituality. And like the Opus 96 violin sonata, and the Opus 110 piano sonata, they are imbued with a sense of “completion”, of acceptance (but most defiantly not resignation) created by a composer finally at peace with his life and his God. (As my friend Sylvia says of the Op 110, “there he was, deaf as a f—–g post, unlucky in love, and he still managed to write that!)
The last ‘cello sonata, in D major, contains a prayer in its slow movement, offering an almost Messiaenic vision of eternity: yet the final movement is a life-affirming fugue, that most stable and triumphant of musical devices, bringing us emphatically back to earth.