Movement 1: Allegro, ma non tanto
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro molto
Movement 3: Adagio cantabile
Movement 4: Allegro vivace
The opening cello line descends, before the piano enters and rises to a pause, where there is a short cadenza-like passage. The roles are then reversed, with the piano singing the melody in octaves, and the cello having its own mini-cadenza. Then the real action begins, with an energetic, tense passage in the minor leading to the second subject. Bach isn’t far away here: upward scales in one instrument are in counterpoint with a slower, descending arpeggio in the other—neither of which dominates until the cello breaks out with some longing sighs. An obviously ‘heroic’ theme then presents itself, first in the piano, accompanied by pizzicatos in the cello. The bridge before the double-bar already prepares us for the gentleness of the opening theme when repeated.
In a copy of the sonata given to its dedicatee, the Baron von Gleichenstein, Beethoven wrote the epigraph ‘inter lacrymas et luctus’ (‘amid tears and sorrow’). This surely referred to the political climate of the day (and Beethoven’s disillusionment with Napoleon), rather than anything funereal in the sonata. Nevertheless, it seems particularly apt for the development section of this movement, where Beethoven uses the descending notes taken from the third and fourth bars of his initial theme and turns them into a quote from Bach’s alto aria ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (‘It is finished’) from the St John Passion. There is, however, no evidence that Beethoven knew this work. But we find the same motif in the Arioso in the slow movement of his Piano Sonata Op 110, marked Klagender Gesang (Arioso dolente). Whether or not it was done consciously, what is certain is that it is a moment of great poignancy, turned briefly into a storm when both instruments play fortissimo. Bach’s influence seems to continue in the passage leading back to the recapitulation where the cello theme is now embroidered by the piano’s right hand. A magical moment comes at the coda when, instead of ending the movement immediately, Beethoven has both cello and piano playing the theme in D major. What follows that moment is reminiscent of the bridge passage in the fifth symphony between the scherzo and finale. An almost unbearable tension slowly grows and is finally released when the theme is presented triumphantly, now back in the tonic key. More distant rumblings—low in the cello, high in the piano—take place before Beethoven brings this remarkable movement to a brilliant finish.
The second movement is a wild Scherzo in A minor, marked Allegro molto. The (more or less) same material is presented three times in a row with the briefest of codas tacked on at the end. The tied notes in both instruments pose a bit of a dilemma. Are they to be repeated or not? On the cello a slight re-emphasis on the note is possible. On the piano this considerably weakens the effect and the rhythm. Beethoven’s fingering (a change from fourth to third finger while holding the same note) is perhaps a warning not to release the note too soon rather than an indication to hear it a second time. This is a truly orchestral-sounding scherzo, especially in the major section where it is not hard to imagine horns and woodwinds taking part in the dialogue. The coda is a sure sign that some devilish, or at least ghostly, presence has been at work in this very original movement.
Once again Beethoven denies the cello-piano duo a true slow movement. The melody of the Adagio cantabile could surely have been the beginning of something great, but we must be satisfied with a glimpse of heaven rather than a trip there. Before we know it, the final Allegro vivace is upon us. This is one of those fantastic finales in which Beethoven combines his unstoppable high spirits with lofty thoughts, and where virtuosity is never an end in itself (as in the finale of his Piano Concerto No 4 in G major). The dialogue between the two instruments reaches perfection, and demands the highest level of communication and expressiveness. A year after this piece was finished, Beethoven said he had still not heard a good public performance of it. Perhaps he had to wait until 1812 when it was played by his pupil Carl Czerny and the cellist Joseph Linke, who would later premiere his last two cello sonatas. Today it is one of the most loved of all chamber music sonatas, and cellists count themselves fortunate to have been presented with something so incomparably beautiful.
from notes by Angela Hewitt & Daniel Müller-Schott © 2008