Ben Hogwood
ClassicalSource.com

Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin have been performing Beethoven’s works for cello and piano for some time, not least at Wigmore Hall in 2007. This Hyperion release meets and frequently exceeds expectations. The use of a fortepiano highlights Beethoven’s innovation in gradually bringing the cello from its role as accompanist to equal partner. The transition begins tentatively in the early sets of Variations, and flowers in the two Opus 5 works, but by the pair of Opus 102 Sonatas—themselves a gateway into Beethoven’s late style—the stringed instrument almost completely takes the lead. It does so in these totally idiomatic performances. Vibrato is used, but the tone of Isserlis’s Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius of 1726 matches perfectly Levin’s Paul McNulty copy of an 1805 Walter & Sohn fortepiano.

The first two Sonatas are substantial and energetic examples of early Beethoven, dating from 1796—and when played with the sheer enthusiasm and panache in evidence here the music is very enticing. The recording captures expressive intakes of breath, which only adds to the tangibility of the performances. Levin relishes sforzando moments that make the listener briefly recoil in shock, which they surely would have done to Beethoven’s audiences, too. Isserlis, meanwhile, invests each tune with great affection, his enthusiasm wholly appealing.

The F major Sonata elicits perhaps the biggest smile, the duo really enjoying Beethoven’s voyage of discovery in the third movement, where unusual key-changes are seized with relish, and in the slow introduction to the work, which is wonderfully poised and lyrical, readying the listener for the outbreak of liveliness that will surely follow.

Isserlis contributes the booklet note for Hyperion, concentrating on the images and emotions the music suggests. He likens the second of the Opus 5 pieces to an evening at the opera, and invests its first movement with appropriate grandeur. The faster movements fizz, Levin’s piano biting deep on occasion, and with quick tempos the boundless invention is irresistible. The Opus 69 Sonata extends Beethoven’s writing for the cello and his manipulation of traditional forms. The scherzo is almost frighteningly brusque, its phrases clipped and its talons sharpened—particularly from Levin—but the Adagio introduction to the finale is exquisite in its tenderness. The first movement is a majestic statement.

The two ‘late’ Sonatas are also a joy, but here profundity replaces youthful vivacity. The mysterious opening of Opus 102 No 1, tonally secure but feeling its way tentatively through darkness, is beautifully realised, as is the approach to the resplendent fugue of the finale of the next work, the tension building to exquisite levels. The extent of Beethoven’s mood-swings is reflected through the stern scherzo of the C major Sonata, and also in the vigorous and seemingly carefree beginning to the D major. Both works complement each other emotionally and musically—and in these recordings they are an unadulterated pleasure.

The Variations illustrate just how far Beethoven took the cello in a short space of time. The regal Handel Variations is notable for Isserlis’s sensitivity of phrasing, while the two collections on Mozart themes (both from The Magic Flute) enjoy the tumbling phrases of Levin, though in its minor-key commentaries the mood is doleful. There is a welcome footnote in the shape of the Horn Sonata, heard in what is believed to be the composer’s own arrangement. This is fire and brimstone stuff, the notes leaping off the page in the entertaining exchanges of the outer movements and with affecting softness in the tiny Andante.

No matter how familiar you are with this music, there are tens of fine recordings already, you need this one, and it would be a yardstick starting-point. Isserlis and Levin’s performances represent pure musical enjoyment and revelations (surprises and shocks) from start to finish.