One does not often have the opportunity to hear all of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and ‘cello performed live in a single afternoon or evening. Yet it’s a fascinating and absorbing experience because to hear the complete sonatas, one is offered a unique snapshot of Beethoven’s creative and compositional development at three key periods of his life.
The Opus 5 Sonatas are a young man’s works: fresh, vibrant, colourful, and 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 are real “concert pieces”, and also remind us that Beethoven was a fine pianist: 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. 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 sonata 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, the Opus 70 piano trios, and the completion and publication of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. It is an entirely classical sonata in its 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 wonderful symmetry. The entire work radiates warmth, positivity, serenity and joy.
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 Opus 96 violin sonata, and the last three piano sonatas, these sonatas seem to inhabit another world entirely, expressing an almost transcendental spirituality. And like Beethoven’s other late works, they are imbued with a sense of “completion”, of acceptance, but most defiantly not resignation!
The last ‘cello sonata, in D major, contains a prayer in its beautiful slow movement, offering an almost Messiaen-like vision of eternity. The final movement is a life-affirming fugue, that most stable and triumphant of musical devices, bringing us most emphatically back to earth.
Cellist Guy Johnston and pianist Melvyn Tan perform Beethoven’s complete Cello Sonatas over the course of two concerts as the finale to this year’s Hertfordshire Festival of Music, on Saturday 11th June in Harpenden.
Full details and tickets here
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